Underwater encounters – soft coral, skull caves and bioluminescent birdwatching

Skulls caves, waterfalls, bioluminescent birdwatching. Sometimes the most amazing diving is not the most memorable part of an adventure. A trip to Tawali Dive Resort in Papua New Guinea helped me discover one of my favourite dive sites in the world but it was everything else I found there that made this place unforgettable. Let’s dive in one last time.

Getting there

Just getting to Tawali is an adventure. First you fly from PNG’s capital Port Morseby to a remote town in PNG’s south east, called Alotau. From there a rambling mini bus drive takes you past villages and through jungle. You spot farms, villages and plane wrecks nestled in the bush. Two hours later you are unloaded at a small wooden dock. Suitcases are passed through the mini bus window and piled onto a boat. We head out as the last fishermen head in from the day on wooden canoes. A mass of green looms above a wooden jetty as dusk falls. This is Tawali, we’ve made it.

Soft corals and jungle skies

Over the coming days we left our mountainous new home to explore the nearby reefs. Motoring out on the dive boat we’d see flying fish leap out of the water and dart across the surface. One day we came upon a site called Deacon’s Reef. Looking up at the jungle I stepped off the boat and descended. Coral reef greeted me in every direction, colourful and alive with a rainbow of fish. Swimming along I followed our guide, so far nothing unusual here. We weaved between rocks covered in sponges and encrusting coral. I found myself in a gully, a rock wall on one side rose from the sea floor to the surface.

Looking up took my breath away. It wasn’t a wall it was the edge of the land. Above me the sunlight shimmered through the jungle, creating a sparkling green ceiling. The gully grew shallower, I was swimming upwards towards the jungle. Looking away from the land I saw a mass of vibrant colours. Soft corals in the most delicate shades of pink, yellow and orange grew in clumps. I floated at the bottom of the gully. Looking up at the soft corals, fish swam above me like birds among the reflections of the jungle. It was a disorienting, beautiful world.

Soft corals don’t grow calcium carbonate skeletons, they’re not reef builders like hard corals. Every soft coral polyp has eight tentacles instead of six, placing soft corals and sea fans in in a group called Octocorals. Some octocorals have algae in their tissues called zooxanthellae. This algae converts sunlight into food through photosynthesis, similar to terrestrial plants. Other soft corals don’t contain any zooxanthellae. They rely on underwater currents to bring their plankton food to them. These algae-free soft corals are easy to spot as they are bright shades of red, orange, pink and purple.

Surfacing from the dive, the surreal feeling persisted as we went on a shopping trip in the ocean. Local villagers had paddled out in their canoes to sell jewellery and shells. Mitch picked a necklace for me while bobbing beside the canoe.

Waterfalls and skull caves

Back at the resort that afternoon we kept exploring. A local guide, Gilbert, took us to see some caves. It was overcast but muggy in the jungle, the air felt heavy with water. Descending into the first cave we felt the temperature drop. Cool relief! As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we followed a short path deeper, down into the earth. Rounding a bend, we came upon a strange formation.

White stalactites hung from the cave ceiling. When the torch beam hit them, they sparkled as if covered in glitter. My eyes slid down to a pile of white rocks stacked up at their base. But they weren’t rocks. They were skulls. Piles and piles of human skulls filled the cave. Empty eye sockets stared blankly up at us. Some skulls had begun crystallising and also glittered. It was eerie, but beautiful. A natural tribute to ancestors. Or a hiding place of murdered enemies? Like everything in PNG you can never be quite sure.

Back in the daylight and the heat we ventured on. The sun had begun to go down and the dusk was creeping in. Following a path through the jungle we arrived at a waterfall. The forest was quiet except for the splash of water. A calming end to an action filled day. We were all silent on the boat back to the resort.

Bioluminescent bird watching

For our last day on the island we set our alarms for 3am. We were going bird watching. By 4am we were on a boat heading into the dark sea. Stars twinkled above, fading as the dawn approached. It was pitch black except for a strange light trailing the boat. Water splashing along the boat and in our wake flashed blue, like electric sparks in the black ocean. The neon blue light spread along the sides as we sped up. Bioluminescence.

Many marine organisms can produce light from a chemical reaction within their bodies. This is called bioluminescence. They do this when being attacked, trying to attract a mate or when physically disturbed, such as when a boat makes waves. Lots of animals can produce bioluminescence, including plankton, jellyfish, sea stars, fish and sharks. The one thing these species all contain is a molecule called luciferin that creates light when it reacts with oxygen.

In the predawn light we began scrambling uphill. The muddy path wound up the side of a mountain. Bugs landed on us, the mud sucked at out sandals. Our guide sped ahead, nimble in his thongs, hacking errant branches off the path with his bush knife. We trekked onwards, upwards, the day grew lighter. Finally we stopped in a small clearing at the top. Our guide looked up. We did too, not quite sure what to look for.

Finally, he pointed up. I couldn’t see anything. I stared at the green, hoping a shape would materialise. He pulled me closer and pointed again with his arm next to my head. There it was, a brown, bedraggled shape amongst the leaves. A bird of paradise. It had arrived at its morning roost to sing its mating call. But today it was silent. We all looked up, waiting. But he flew from one tree to another then left in silence to get on with his day. It was an incredible end to our trip. We headed back to the island to pack and say our goodbyes. A week of underwater and topside encounters had left us with a lifetime of memories and a vow to return.

This was the final post in the Underwater Encounters series! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my favourite marine memories and this has inspired you to get out and make your own. This series was produced as part of an assignment for my Masters in Science Communication. If you have any tips, tricks or other feedback to help me improve my science communication please comment or message me. It’s time for me to abandon ship. Until next time may you have fair winds and calm seas.

Underwater encounters – Octopus gardens and shark stacks

“It was winter and the water was a chilly 14 degrees. I inhaled sharply as it soaked through my wetsuit, 7 millimetres of neoprene doesn’t stop you getting goose bumps. Ignoring the cold, we kept swimming out. There was something offshore we’d come to see and it only happened once a year…”

We have another guest post for this series! Marine biologist and keen macro photographer Mitch joined us to chat about his favourite underwater encounters. Let’s dive in!

Meet Mitch (the one on the left)

Huskisson, N.S.W

Today we’re taking you to Huskisson, a small coastal town on the south coast of NSW. Husky, as the locals call it, sits in the Jervis Bay Marine Park. This makes exploring temperate reefs really accessible if you pop on a tank and swim straight out from the beach. Mitch and his buddy had come to dive a site called Dent Rock.

“Dent rock is a small rocky reef sitting 150 metres offshore from Orion beach. It’s marked by a buoy on the surface because the reef can be only 2-5 metres below the surface depending on the tide. This makes it perfect for diving because boats avoid it. We hauled our gear down a steep set of stairs and walked out through the shallow breakers. Picking our way over rocks we began to swim out, the water was only about three metres deep over the weed banks.”

Swimming out over the seaweed Mitch and his buddy kept an eye out for interesting critters to photograph.

“As you move along you find patches in the weed, surrounded by shells. Empty shells from clams, scallops, mussels, pipis, every kind of mollusc that usually buries itself in the sand were piled up in circular clumps. In the centre of the shell piles was a hole that seemed to drop down to nowhere, but if you’re lucky it drops down to an orange, brown and cream speckled octopus.”

Mitch points out one of two octopi/octopuses (whichever you prefer). Can you spot the other one?

Octopus Gardens

These strange homes are called octopus gardens (we know you just started humming the Beatles song). A lot of creatures like the taste of octopus so to avoid being eaten they hide in dens. The octopus camouflages its home by building gardens of shells and rocks around it, some even have a rock ‘door’ they pull over the opening to seal themselves safely inside.

An octopus in its garden of shells

“It’s clear these creatures are full of personality. Some can’t keep their eyes off you, they pop as far out of their hole as they can when you approach. If you float down to the weed bank they float higher to keep an eye on you. Others want absolutely nothing to do with you and sink deep into their holes, pulling shells over their heads for cover.”

Close up of an octopus

“All that and we hadn’t even hit the reef yet! Jervis Bay is a pretty special spot because it serves as a breeding aggregation site for Port Jackson sharks. Breeding aggregation, that doesn’t sound particularly special but you end up with hundreds of sharks piling on top of each other, all with no concept of personal space.”

Port Jackson Sharks

Each year between winter to early spring, Port Jackson sharks migrate to shallow reefs to mate. Here they congregate in small groups, in caves, under overhangs, and in gutters along the rocky bottom.

“So what psychopath is getting in the water with hundreds of sharks? Well that’s the other bonus, Port Jackson’s or PJ’s as we call them, are the puppy dogs of the ocean. These bottom feeders eat sea urchins, crabs and molluscs (invertebrates with shells), anything they can root out of the sandy bottom. They’re really not interested in you unless you give them a hard time.”

“PJ’s for anyone that hasn’t seen one, don’t look like your stereotypical shark. They’re a square headed fish reaching a maximum length of 1.65 metres. Their skin is brown with black lines that make it look like they’re wearing a harness. They have rounded fins with small spines just in front of their dorsal fins. Even their teeth are unusual. They have flattened plates perfect for crushing and grinding up their food, very different to the pointed teeth you normally associate with sharks.”

A Port Jackson shark up close, note its unusual teeth

The divers had finally arrived at Dent Rock. But could they find the sharks?

“It wasn’t hard, they were scattered everywhere over the bottom. Heads and tails were going in every direction, no one was fussed that they were being lain on or were laying on someone else. The great thing is these sharks just don’t care. We spent a lot of the dive just hovering above the sand watching them, face to face. They watch you back. There are honestly few encounters with sharks where you can feel this comfortable.”

Stacks on! Three Port Jackson sharks lay in a gap in the reef

It never ceases to amaze me what you can find by simply swimming off the beach and having a look around. Mitch had researched the timing of the shark aggregation but didn’t expect to see the octopus gardens. He can’t wait to explore more underwater in his own backyard once it’s possible to travel again.

Images are a mix of my own photographs and those provided by Mitch.

Underwater encounters – Can you make friends with fish?

To some people, fish seem completely devoid of personality. You’ve seen one fish you’ve seen them all. In my experience this hasn’t been true. A few years ago, I volunteered at the research station on Lizard Island. This island is a picturesque tropical paradise, named for the goannas traipsing around the beaches. The island is also home to a resort and the Australian Museum’s research station. Coral reefs surround the island and are used as an underwater lab by researchers and students.

A turtle and its hangers on

One morning before my volunteer work began for the day I snuck down to the beach for a snorkel. Heading offshore I passed beds of seagrass growing out of the sand. Then I came across a green sea turtle having breakfast. This herbivore was feeding on seagrass, which turns the fat in its body green – hence its name.

I watched the turtle as it swam and grazed. There was something weird about this one. Finally, the turtle swam up to take a breath and I could see two large fish firmly attached to the bottom of its shell.

These fish were remoras, more commonly called suckerfish. Their name means delay or hinder, which is an accurate description. Their dorsal (top) fin has evolved into a flat plate on the top of their heads. This suction disc contains collagen fibres to maximise the remoras contact with its host. Collagen comes from the Greek word for glue. You might be familiar with collagen because it is the most abundant protein in your body and gives your skin that plump look. The suction disc also contains thousands of tiny spines that increase friction, helping the fish ‘stick’. This allows remoras to suction themselves onto larger, moving animals. The bond is so strong a remora can stay attached to a dolphin even when it leaps out of the water!

So, what was the remora doing on the turtle? Well it depends on the species. Some remoras just opportunistically feed on their host’s food scraps and get a free ride. They spend little energy when another animal transports them so don’t have to eat much. Other remora species help their host by removing parasites. When both animals benefit this relationship is called commensalism. So, it seems fish can get along with other sea creatures.

Remoras can also have commensal relationships with people. In some parts of the world remoras are used in fishing. How you ask? Well a fisherman attaches a line to a remora, sends it off into the ocean and the remora attaches itself to a turtle or larger fish. The fisherman can then carefully reel in the remora and the animal it is stuck to. The fisherman catches something and the remora is fed scraps for its job.

Snorkel side kicks

I had a hanger on myself once. One afternoon during an internship in Exmouth, Western Australia I went for an afternoon snorkel. My boyfriend and his parents were visiting so I took them to the nearby Bundegi Boat ramp to see what was living underneath. We saw the usual stonefish sitting grumpily in its PVC pipe, the schools of baitfish and the occasional angelfish that had drifted in from the nearby Ningaloo Reef.

A little yellow fish decided to swim with us for most of our snorkel. It was about the size of my pinky, yellow with a few black vertical stripes. It looked a little cartoonish thanks to its large eyes that looked up at me. It would swim along with me for a while, hiding in my shadow then if I duck dived it would abandon me for my partner nearby. Back and forth it swam between us, happily joining our snorkel.

This fish was a juvenile golden trevally. Juveniles of this species often form groups and follow larger fish like groupers, sharks and even SCUBA divers. They do this because the large fish protects them from being eaten by other predators. The large fish doesn’t eat the juvenile trevally because they are fast moving and can out manoeuvre their host.

It is clear to me that individual fish have personalities and science is starting to back this up. In one study of guppies individual fish reacted differently to stressful situations indicating different personality types. Research continues with another study about to begin which examines how much butterfly fish personality varies between individuals living on different reefs. But can fish be your friend? Well this little yellow fish found something to like about us and tolerated the rest. Not that different from any human friend really. These encounters taught me that whenever you get in the water there’s a chance to interact with marine life. Make sure these are positive for all involved.

Underwater encounters – shallow water secrets

I’d like to share a little secret. One of my favourite encounters occurred in water that didn’t even reach my knees. Let me explain. I was on holiday last year at Lissenung Island, a speck of paradise to the north of mainland Papua New Guinea. Every day we’d hop on a boat and head to dive sites, speeding through mangrove lined shallows to get to coral walls that dropped off into deep water. Now don’t get me wrong, these sites were amazing. Fish swarm the walls in constant, colourful motion. Turning around you’re faced with an expanse of deep blue ocean. Also alive, with schools of large silver trevally that shimmer past. Occasionally a turtle lazily flapped by. Hanging in mid water staring into the abyss you could watch a reef shark curiously circle above divers staring obliviously at the coral wall.

Between dives at sites like this the crew would take us to sheltered spots for the dive interval. This gives us an hour topside to let the nitrogen levels in our blood drop so we could stay down longer on the next dive. On one of these breaks the boys took us to a sandbar. I munched on fresh coconut and soaked up the tropical sun while staring absently at the green mangroves. Someone brought me back to reality saying, “I think there’s a clownfish next to the boat”. The dive snacks were forgotten. We donned our masks and slipped over the side to float in the shallows. The ocean was as warm as bath water, like those shallow rockpools you come across that have been soaking in all the sun’s heat. Beneath the surface seagrasses waved lazily. Small coral patches and anemones littered the sand.

In every crevice there was something alive, a crab darted into a crack in the coral. Small yellow fish schooled amongst the seagrass. But the clownfish were amazing. In such shallow water we saw three different types. My favourite was the Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion percula). It was my first time seeing these cuties, shaped like a typical Disney Nemo but with more black colouring. A cool thing about these clownfish, the amount of black pigmentation changes depending on which species of anemone they live with. You see, anemones are happy to host lots of different anemonefish species. Clown Anemonefish are picky, they’re only happy to call three anemone species home. If a Clown Anemonefish doesn’t find a magnificent, gigantic or leathery sea anemone to live in it will perish quickly. This relationship is called a symbiosis. The fish are protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging tentacles (like living in a jellyfish). In return the fish bring snacks to bed, dropping food offerings into their anemone host in return for this safe haven.

“Come look at this!” Robert, one of the crew called us into even shallower water. He pointed at a brownish blob well camouflaged in the sand. “Devil scorpionfish, very dangerous, don’t step on him” Robert warned. We all peered at the scraggily brown blob that blended perfectly with its sandy surroundings. This ambush predator waits for a meal to come to it. While seemingly lazy, they speedily lunge and inhale smaller fish when they swim too close. When feeling threatened Devil Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) lifts the venomous spines along their back, revealing why it is one of the world’s most venomous fish. If you step on a scorpionfish you can be in severe pain for up to 12 hours. Luckily it can be treated with hot water, which can be found even in the most remote locations. Naturally my dive buddy and macro enthusiast boyfriend, Mitch, had to get a shot. We all laughed at him lying in the shallows.

With so much to see the dive interval was over before we knew it. The dive crew grinned as we suggested we do the next dive at the sand bar. A little reluctantly we all hopped back on the boat to go to the next ‘real’ dive site. With so much to see in shallow water, I’d learnt to check out any puddle, rockpool or barely flowing river I came across from then on. Let me be the first to tell you, you don’t need much water to have a cool aquatic encounter!

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 7

I headed out to Bungelup remote camp for the night, driving through a wind driven sandstorm. Red dust was flying across the road in a cloud and swirling above the ground. It was so windy, rattling past at 35-55kms an hour. It shook the car when I stopped. Arriving at camp the stationed team said they had barely slept the night before. I set up my swag then joined everyone reading, slipping into the very cruisy Bungelup routine. The remote camp has been set up to allow monitoring of the beaches here, which are part of one of the largest loggerhead turtle rookeries in the Eastern Indian Ocean Basin. I was here to brush up on everything I needed to know about running the remote camp before running one in 4 days’ time.

Two camp chairs sit between swags under the sun shade at Bungelup. Books and waterbottles at the ready.
The accomodations, while basic, are immensely relaxing at Bungalup

We made pizza for dinner in the BBQ and played uno, it was too windy to consider anything else. In my swag it was as if someone had left a light on, the moon was shining straight in. I zipped my swag up further. The wind was relentless. The trees and bushes around us shook all night long. My swag wobbled, the wind blew through it making me huddle further into my sleeping bag. I woke at 4am, when we said we might go looking for turtles coming to nest on the high tide. No one else moved. At 5.30 I heard movement and put my jumper on, ready to go monitoring. The tracks had almost been blown away.

Weird sculptures in the sand like a mini city of skyscrapers were left behind from a failed nesting attempt

Even the turtles didn’t want to come out last night. Along five kilometres of beach we only had two nests and one false crawl. Back at camp we had a quick breakfast, packed up and headed home. I hoped the Bungelup trip I would lead in a few days would have better weather.

Photo taken of the camp at night, which sits between the white ute and two casuarina trees that tower overhead. The night sky is blue and littered with little white spots - stars.

Back in town the next day the wind had died down. I went walking from Hunter’s to Mauritius. Along the way I saw a turtle digging a body pit in the side of a sand dune. I watched her for a while, thinking her head was towards the dune because of the direction she was flicking sand. She moved a lot. Her whole shell kind of wobbled side to side then she’d do a flick then another wobble then flick the other flipper. This went on for some time. It was close to 7am but she was shaded by the dune so maybe she didn’t know how late it was. Then her head popped up in the dune at the opposite end to where I thought. She’d been flicking sand over her head with her back flippers. Could turtle’s need a few years to practice what we assume are intuitive skills? This one certainly hadn’t read the how-to-nest manual.

A turtle heaves herself out of a hole she has dug in the side of a dune. Ready for nesting attempt number two.

That afternoon around sunset we all went looking for hatchlings at Five Mile. We walked up the beach then had to stop because a Hawksbill turtle was dragging herself out of the water. It was broad daylight and still quite hot, but off she went. Halfway up to the dunes she positioned herself parallel to the water and began digging a body pit. We crept up behind her when she began scooping out her egg chamber. She alternated using her back flippers to scoop a handful of sand out of the chamber, and dump it next to the hole. Her flippers were so dextrous, it reminded me of someone using their hands to scoop up free cherries at Christmas. She moved over the hole and began laying eggs.

Back view of a hawksbill turtle as she digs her egg chamber. Her flipper is in midair, flicking sand back over her head.
Close up of the rear flippers and shell of a hawksbill turtle. The sand below them is smooth where she has patted it down over her eggs.

We couldn’t see them but her body moved back and forth each time an egg came out. Finally she began covering, patting sand down on the eggs with her back flippers so skillfully. We slipped back as she began to camouflage the nest. This meant she was using her front flippers again to create a drag mark along the beach. The aim of this is to confuse predators because all the extra digging hides where the eggs are buried. Job done she headed back out to sea, the sun still hadn’t set. Hawksbill turtles are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN redlist. It was incredible to finally see a Hawksbill, in full daylight, and nesting too!

Side view of a hawksbill turtle on the beach. Her head is lifted in the air as she squints at the camera. Her pointed beak and face are a pale yellow colour.

The next was a very busy day. I finally got to monitor Burrows to Jurabi Point. This is the last section on the North West Cape completed by the leader that drives the bus. There were six nests and seven false crawls, all from green turtles. I’d been running a photo competition for all NTP volunteers (local and external) to enter. This was to encourage sharing photos, telling stories about their experience and collecting relevant images for the program to use in the future. Today was judging day, it was great to look through and pick winners. Once packed I headed to the ute where my two Bungelup volunteers had already started stowing their things. It took an hour to drive out, it was very windy all the way. Once settled in we spent the afternoon reading. A butcherbird sat on the fence and sang through its repertoire of bird noises including magpie, galah flying away, wren chirp and I think rosella. I used the camp stove to make veggie burritos followed by hot chocolate. After dinner we went out on the beach to look for loggerheads nesting but only found more wind and sand. The moon was about three quarters full so we didn’t need torches to find our way back to camp.

Bungelup camp in all its glory. We are looking at hte only building with the two rooms side by side. Both doors are open so we can see inside to the tubs of food and radio equipment on the right. The room on the left has sinks and is the washroom. A blue esky props the right side door open while the left leans on an old leaning BBQ.
All the amenities you could ever need
A butcherbird sits among the branches of a leafless tree. The whole image is in shades of grey. The bird has its beak slightly open in mid song.

I woke up a lot from the wind during the night. Monitoring the northern two sections we only had one nest and seven false loggerhead crawls. There were a tracks where it was obvious the turtle was missing a flipper, perhaps it had done multiple false crawls in the same night. Other turtles had been making sandcastles. After breakky we headed to Osprey Bay for a snorkel despite the wind. It’s a beautiful bay, with a campground sprawled along the coast beside it. We went in near the small boat ramp which is just an area of sand that cuts a path between the rocks lining the water’s edge. I saw a green turtle swimming along, convict surgeonfish picking algae off her shell, flippers and neck. Picasso triggerfish were everywhere, looking bluer than normal in the shallow water. They ducked into holes in the rock, which were full of tiny orange fish. There was no reef here, it was mostly algae, seagrass and tiny tufts of coral. I spent the afternoon back at Bungalup reading and writing until I cooked a curry. While we were eating a male dingo trotted along the road behind camp. It sniffed a bush, marked its territory then went back out along the road. I got up and closed the gate but it didn’t come back again.

This image shows a volunteer walking behind the dunes to give perspective on how far a turtle has crawled up the beach. The tracks stretch off into the horizon.

Our last morning at Bungelup saw more tracks action, four nests and 18 false crawls. It seemed like the turtles were all going further into the dunes to avoid the wind. One track went off the beach into the dunes about 40 metres back before looping around on itself and coming back the same way. We saw an osprey sitting on a rock on the beach eating a fish, but it quickly left as we approached. Walking back, we came across a brown snake in the middle of the beach. It seemed angry about our presence, curling into an S shape and rearing its head up. We backed away instantly but it moved around tasting the air with its tongue as if to work out where we’d gone. We went around behind the dunes to get past, the fact there was no antivenom in Exmouth running through my head. We found we were only 15 metres from the turnoff back to camp. After breakky we packed up and headed back to town, such a relaxing couple of days even with the wind and unfriendly snake!

Sunlit dunes, the ripples in the sand show the path the wind has left from the night before.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 6

This morning at Five Mile was magical. When I was trying to work out where the first two overlapping tracks went I saw sand spraying into the air. Looked again. Yup, it couldn’t be the wind making it do that. Then I heard the noise, kind of like a dry scraping thump. A turtle was nesting! I gave her plenty of space and saw two more turtles behind her, one on the rock platform between the sand and ocean, another making her way down the beach. We watched the other turtle make its way past the one lying on the platform. As soon as she got to the rockpool nearby she started swimming around, did a loop and swam up to the other one as if to check on it. Then she continued out over the rocks into a deeper pool where she swam around while I continued checking tracks.

Side view of a turtle on the beach, sand pours off her head and raised front right flipper

The nesting turtle was still flicking sand everywhere but then began making her way out of the hole she was in. She must have been covering her eggs. I watched her make her way down the beach. There was sand across one of her eyes and the salty excretion dripping down her face was also covered in sand. She moved onto the rocks. They were high and jagged so she had to climb up and over them. She crawled slowly up and over. Slowing down on the flat stretch, she seemed to catch her breathe. She went straight towards the ocean and disappeared over the lip of rocks into the sea.

A turtle among sharp rocks, flippers pulling her forward
A turtle stops on the rock platform to take a breath
Wave goodbye - back view of a turtle as it tips over the edge of the rock platform into the ocean, flippers flicking water up

I had my own section to monitor on Monday, from Hunters to Mauritius. It was really nice just walking alone along the beach. There were a few fishermen at the start of my section, yelling to each other and breaking the morning peace. Otherwise I had the beach to myself, only 3 nests and 3 false crawls along the 2.5 kilometre section. This was very quiet as I found out later the next section along had 24 turtle tracks recorded. Reaching the end I was still overwhelmed by flies. They were relentless. Sitting on the sand I tried to bury my head between my knees with my arms over my head, it kept all but one off my face. I went for a swim but they seemed to follow me, even the water wasn’t safe!  Back on the beach I watched the water. Everyone who did this stretch knew a loggerhead frequented the shore here. As if on cue she popped up to take a breath. Loggerheads are not as elegant looking as other turtles. They have black around their eyes and a large jaw for crushing their invertebrate prey. This combines to give them a big headed, eye-bulging appearance.

view of a broken sea urchin on the sand, white Aristotle's lantern (mouth parts) in the centre in perfect condition
Beach finds – Aristotle’s lantern in a sea urchin

Woodside Energy is the major sponsor for the Ningaloo Turtle Program this year. They have sent two representatives up to learn about the program. This is a good photo opportunity to post about on the NTP pages. There’s no room on the bus so I drove myself out to meet them at the end section. Along the way I saw a pack of five dingoes around a kangaroo carcass on the side of the road. Most of them ran off as I slowed my car down, pulling up on the opposite side of the road. One male continued to feed. Flies were everywhere, it kept stopping to snap at them. Shooting through the window I watched as another dingo joined it. This second dingo was a young female, only half the size of the male. The smaller one pulled at the kangaroo’s tail. They fed side by side for a bit, then the male started pulling out the kangaroo’s leg bones, cracking into its thigh. The smaller one decided to grab the spine and pull it from the body at the same time. Flies were all over it’s face. The male ran off behind my car and into the low scrub. The bush is short but thick, so he quickly disappeared. The smaller one continued feeding then did the same thing. What an incredible start to the morning!

Two dingoes pick at a kangaroo carcass, orange ion the early morning light
Two dingoes are head down, tail up in the carcass
The smaller female dingo looks back at me over her shoulder, the bushes and her rimmed by golden morning light

We went up to the lighthouse to watch the last sunset of the year, and the decade. There was a lot of haze on the horizon and otherwise a clear sky. It eventually went golden then the sun turned into an orange ball and drifted into the haze, turning into funny shapes, becoming square then just a smudge. We went down to Hunters beach and walked along it looking for hatchlings but saw none, just got sandy feet. Walking to my room later, I saw a flock of corellas fly over, white bodies contrasting starkly against the black sky.

The start of new year’s day, I could hear the usual corellas moving about as I got up at 5am. Heading out early I didn’t see any wildlife along the way apart from three bustards at the Lakeside turnoff. It was already windy there so I moved on to Turquoise Bay and did a walk around the bay. It was so calm. I saw a shark fin while sitting on the rocks at the northern end, staring at the sea and thinking about how full the last decade had been and how much I’d done that I never thought I would. It didn’t have a black tip, just a silver fin so I wasn’t sure what kind it was. I forced myself into the water at turquoise drift. The wind was coming up stronger, making the surface choppy and there was already a strong current so I didn’t stay in long. A blue spotted lagoon ray was feeding, kicking up clouds of sand with its movements. It allowed me to take a few photos then swam off, flapping its body over the coral.

A brown stingray covered in blue polka dots glides over the ocean floor

On the section Jacobsz South to Wobiri I came across a turtle still covering her eggs. In doing so she’d almost completely buried herself in her secondary body pit. There was sand all over her shell and head, you just saw the occasional flick of sand, sometimes a flipper. I waited for over twenty minutes and she was still covering the eggs, I waited some more. Eventually she’d covered them to her liking and dragged herself out of the hole this in itself took some time. Turtles must have extremely strong pectoral muscles because they only use their front flippers to pull themselves along. I’ve seen them heave themselves over rocks, down the beach and where they’ve gone up steep sand dunes I struggled to walk up myself. Turtles constantly amaze me with their strength and stubborn determination to nest and get back to sea.

Side view of a turtle as it moves down the beach, it's shell and head are heaped in sand
Portrait of the same turtle, sand is everywhere even piled around her eye and on top of her head

Sand poured off her but there was still a layer on her shell and head as she began crawling down the beach. Luckily she didn’t have far to go, it was starting to get hot. There were no rocks to cross either so she made her way back into the water quite quickly (for a turtle). Once her flippers were underwater a wave broke over her shell washing off the sand and leaving only patterned shell. She started flapping her flippers wildly to swim away. She poked her head above the water and snorted a jet of water from her nostrils. Walking back up towards the carpark I spotted a shovel nosed ray in the shallows. There can’t be a better start to the day then a walk on the beach at Ningaloo during nesting season.

Back view as the turtle disappears into the wash, a wave hits her shell washing the sand away

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.

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