Third day tracking marsupials

I awoke to the bellowing of male koalas, the plan-flute timbre of the call of the magpies (certainly schooled by a different vocal coach than their European cousins) and the laughter of kookaburras. The wind had died down, and the sky seemed to be clearing. The morning began with radio tracking, gum nut collection, and laying down tarps under specific koalas to catch scat for gut-fauna analysis. The enormous box (probably about 2 gallons in volume) of gum nuts (seed pods of the manna gum tree) will be allowed to dry and then the seeds will be collected and germinated to produce seedlings to replace the increasing number of trees killed by koala herbivory in the area of the study site. The seeds are apparently quite tiny, and each 1 cm diameter gum nut contains hundreds, but establishing healthy seedlings apparently requires a lot of seeds for starters. These trees also shed their bark and long strands of it flap in the wind like laundry on a clothesline.


All was going well on all fronts, until I went to help one of the tracking teams with the last few animals on their list. We found Bella and Monty and Katrina with little problem, but when it came to locating Frank, the obstreperous male we had caught yesterday, he was not in any of his customary trees. We tracked his signal to an area with incredibly dense head-high bracken ferns, and spent almost an hour bushwhacking our way through trying to home in on the signal. It was hot, exhausting work, and while I had a firm idea of Frank’s direction and approximate location, we were having a heck of a time actually getting to it.  Avoiding heat stroke being the better part of valor, we radioed Des who was able to find us, via GPS coordinates, in about 5 minutes. She got to us by a relatively clear path we didn’t know existed, confirmed that we were on Frank’s trail, and helped us find him. He wasn’t anywhere near a manna gum, the much preferred source of food, and was completely covered by the needle-like leaves of the sheoak in which he was sitting. He is, as Des says (think Aussie accent) “a nahsty boye.

After lunch we captured and re-collared Dave and Beast (much more straightforward than the Frank debacle, and I helped with flagging both of them) and fitted them with accelerometers. The idea is that each time the males bellow, they throw their heads back, which should register as a rapid acceleration on the accelerometers. When the data is downloaded, the number, duration, and timing of the bellows should be identifiable, which will give the investigators some insights into that particular behavior. The GPS data is used to track movements of the collared koalas, and will provide some data about who is hanging out with whom among the small subset (fewer than 10%) of animals with collars.

That accomplished, we trudged back to “Wally’s tree” for lunch and a few ant stings. The afternoon tasks varied, but I worked with a few people to begin assessing the 172 tagged gum trees in the study area. Because they have been so heavily browsed, the health of these enormous trees varies from quite viable to mostly dead. Five or six times each year, Des looks at every tree and evaluates it on a variety of parameters so as to have a longitudinal data set for each. My job was to photograph the ID tags, then take a few photos straight up into the canopy of each tree in the study. 

After about 50 trees, I was running low on battery power, and it was approaching 5PM. Then we spotted a mother koala with her 8 or 9-month-old joey in her arms. We spent the next 45 minutes watching the pair of them, filling up memory cards, draining batteries, tottering on tree limbs, and repeatedly uttering, “that is so cute!”

Even Des, jaded though I would have expected her to be after a decade of studying these critters, was enthralled.

Little dude spent a good deal of time trying to get to Mama’s pouch for a drink, but she ignored him, even when he bit her fingers, almost knocked her off the tree (he was over half her size), grabbed on to her belly and clung there while she scrambled to gain a toe-hold on the tree trunk, climbed on her back, and generally made a complete pest of himself. She blithely went on munching gum leaves, scratching her neck, and eyeing the curious onlookers. Joey was eventually successful and dove in for a long suckle. We couldn’t get an angle to photograph his triumph, but to us, Mom looked resigned, and slightly resentful.

Dinner, data entry, and photo downloading occupied the evening, and now I am ready to go to sleep. I made another attempt to connect to the internet from a spot outside the office, but like all of my colleagues here, my computer registered 5 WiFi bars, but no access to the internet. Aarrggh! Monday is a “day off,” so maybe we can get into town and I can actually post this stuff and get my e-mail. I’m having an amazing time, but I miss everybody!