Wimmera Biodiversity

‘Great Western? Do you know what’s happening with the trees out there?’ ask Lyn and Kathy at the office as I collect the uni car keys. ‘I heard they’re taking them all out, right along the highway. 400 year old redgums, just so the trucks don’t have to go round some bloody corner.’

I keep my eye out for stumps as I drive but just find trails of milk cartons, sheltering the roadside remnants of tomorrow. And strings of flags, marking off sections with trees, sections with drains, sections of paddock; at 110 km an hour it’s not clear whether they indicate the protected plants or the ones destined for removal.

In my Ararat motel room the next morning, I wake quickly, realise it’s 6:30 and snuggle down again. Then I remember that the radio interview I did the day before should be playing on ABC Rural any minute and scrunch barefooted through the puddles to the car. Continue reading

Reference library for camera-trapping images

‘How do you know whether it’s a long-nosed bandicoot?’

‘Well, it’s got a long nose…’

This isn’t this start of some awful Dad joke* but me, back in 2011 when I first started using motion-sensing cameras to survey wildlife. It was so exciting – after months of deciding which type of camera to purchase, nutting out a study design, scrub-bashing to put the cameras out and wandering around in circles in the aforementioned scrub to find them again, I finally had some cool photos of animals.

But then I had to figure out what they were. And field guides to Australian mammals were not as much help as you’d think. The critters hadn’t always aligned themselves for a nice profile pic, I couldn’t see beneath their feet to count their toepads, and really, how long is a long nose supposed to be? Continue reading

A shrub by any other name

What do you think about emotive language in science?

Are foxes invasive feral vermin, or simply introduced? When shrub cover increases, should we describe the process as shrub encroachment, invasion, expansion or woody thickening? Does it make a difference if the shrub species is indigenous?

In a paper now available in Austral Ecology early view, we looked at associations between native mammal occurrence and Yarra Burgan (Kunzea leptospermoides) canopy cover in a eucalypt forest. Yarra Burgan is native to the Yarra Valley, but has spread rapidly within Coranderrk Bushland Reserve over the past 20 years. Burgan grows to more than 10 m tall, shades out understorey plants and doesn’t appear to be eaten by anything much.

Kunzea leptospermoides

Areas ‘encroached’ by Burgan had a sparse, mossy understory and many fallen trees

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A sacred moment

Have you ever heard a hissing tree?

It wasn’t quite a cicada, or a baby cockatoo. It went on and on, and I had no idea what it was.

One of the best things about finishing fieldwork and being stuck in the office writing stats code all week is that I feel like going hiking on weekends again. Somehow, when I was spending most of my time covered in mud and reeking of wet fox, I just wanted to stay warm, dry and clean during my time off – let’s go camping? Nah, how about we rent a cottage? Continue reading

Talking to strangers

‘Are your fox collars brown with a big black lump on one side?’ asked the woman on the phone.

‘Yup, sounds like them. Why?’

‘Umm, I’ve got one here. My friend found it on a dead fox on the road.’

Damn, damn. At that stage, I only had collars on two foxes and now I was back to one again.

I picked the collar up from her friend’s letterbox on my next field trip and sure enough it was Fern’s. Talk about a death-wish! The first fox I ever caught, she had been slightly too small to collar back in December, just an over-grown cub. Then I had re-caught her in late January and been so happy to find that she’d gained enough weight to fit with a GPS collar.

'Gully' - the other fox I had collared at the time

‘Gully’ – the other fox I had collared at the time

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Here be dragons. And waterholes

Burke, Wills and I got it wrong. Central Australia is not flat. Nor is it waterless. It is, however, quite warm.

I’ve just come back from Alice Springs. I couldn’t help myself – I packed a beanie, down jacket and raincoat, along with my swimming togs and sunscreen. The down jacket did actually come in handy – as a pillow.

My sister and I travelled out through the Western MacDonald Ranges, and then down to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. There are heaps of mountains. And beautiful waterholes: some for swimming in, others that are left clean for the wildlife and make wonderful places for bird-watching.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta

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Technological musings

We decided to call him Gammy.

He was a feisty old fox, with worn teeth and a stiff ankle where a once-broken bone had healed. It was the second-last day of my field trip and I’d been debating whether to pull the traps in as I drove up the road. We had already checked them at dawn and caught nothing, but here was Gammy at 11 o’clock in the morning – my fourth fox of the week.

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

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Greater love hath no-one…

It’s mostly Mum’s fault I’m a zoologist.

When I was three, a fox got into our hen yard. It left behind several dead chooks; feathers, gizzards and guts all over the place. Apparently I was allowed to wander around and check them out. She decided that I’d be a scientist when I, quite unperturbed, wanted to know what the bits were.

When I was four, I really, really wanted to go to the zoo. Okay, said Mum, but you have to call them first to check if they’re open. I’ve always hated telephoning, but wanted to see the baby orangutans so much that I did it anyway.

Since then, she reckons that I have been:

(a) Interested in Animals
(b) Not Shy At All, Really.

This has led to all sorts of adventures, and Mum’s often come along to help out. She hasn’t had much luck though.

Watching baboons in Kenya

Watching baboons in Kenya

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Seeing ghosts

I am getting better at tracking foxes. I stand at the corner of two footpads in the forest and know that there will be a scat there, somewhere, if I look hard enough. The reek of a scent-post cuts across my nostrils, even while I am thinking of other things. Driving down a sandy road, I turn a corner and somehow know that it is a good place to set a trap. Sure enough, there are fox prints in the sand and two days later I capture Rusty.

Fox footprint

Sandy soil makes tracking much easier!

The tracks of extinct species, however, are fainter. Continue reading