Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Thursday, 20 December 2012


~2003 to December 2012
Bruce was definitely a favourite and I will miss him.  I'm sure his genes will live on in the Otway koala population though. I'm glad you had such a long life Bruce. RIP.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A legendary effort by legendary people

It is an extreme understatement to say that the November team worked hard.  Our achievements include:
·         Koala census completed at 9 sites (including Aire R)
·         160 randomly selected trees in 8 sites assessed for condition
·         21 new trees tagged and measurements recorded
·         28 tagged trees assessed for condition at Bimbi
·         72 tagged trees located and assessed for condition at Aire R
·         22 koalas captured for health assessment and collar check
·         154 locations of radiocollared koalas recorded
·         4 trees collared
·         Lots of laughs!  
A big THANK YOU to my volunteers: Heather, Leigh, Vicki, Dolores, Helen and Louise; and staff: Cass and Vic for this absolutely amazing effort, and for your never-ending enthusiasm and companionship.
The November team
As for our koalas:

Tony Parker - mug shot
Tony Parker lived up to his legendary status.  He dropped his collar on Day 1 of the trip and we didn’t find him until the last day.  He made me climb to catch him and then casually moved into a neighbouring tree just as I got into position.  It was a major effort (for us, not him) to finally get him down the tree. 
Frank is just as feisty as ever and again tried to attack me as soon as he was on the ground.  Dave is doing well and always bellows a greeting and sometimes shows his excitement in ‘other ways’ (use your imagination here). After the excitement of recollaring Banjo in October, he has managed to yet again break his weaklink and is currently MIA.  Claire is also MIA.  Buffy has a joey ‘Willow’ that is extremely cute, and Ruby obviously is ready for another. The whole team was lucky (or perverted?) enough to watch Ruby and Kevin ‘hook up’.  Ruby actually initiated it – Kevin appeared surprised but certainly up to the task.

Ruby’s former joey Benjamin is now apparently independent and perhaps a bit lonely.  He took a liking to Dolores, chased her and started climbing up her leg.  Even after being prised off and released, he still attempted to climb the nearest pair of legs.

Wally and Bruce are my biggest concerns. Wally had a huge abscess on his upper forearm. We didn’t notice it until it burst during handling. It’s typical of a fight wound. He was still able to climb and was observed in the next few days high in the canopy, but he’s lost almost 1kg since we weighed him in October. Bruce is looking battle-weary. No major wounds but his ears are torn and bloody, and he’s lost 1.5kg since October.

The rest are looking good. New recruit Stevie kept us busy guessing where he was going to move to next (he's now down near Lighthouse Rd), and Beast likes the isolated trees between the site and Big Hill.


We also have three new koalas: Cyril, Harry and Sally. The two new boys are wearing new GPS collars (thanks to the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife).

Sally and her joey
And, as for what it all means….
I'm still wading through all the data but some preliminary analysis tells a pretty grim story for Manna Gum at the Cape.  In April 2011, almost half the trees assessed in the main site (where koalas are being tracked), had a reasonably healthy canopy of >50% cover. Now, less than 5% have >50% cover (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Decline in %trees with >50% canopy cover from April 2011 to November 2012.
If we just look at those trees that we have monitored since April 2011, mean percent. canopy cover has declined from 51% to 33% (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Mean %Canopy Cover of trees monitored since April 2011
This really is no surprise considering that there are around 18 koalas per hectare munching on the trees in the site.
So, what do we do? That is the question that both landholders and the Victorian government is now asking.
Cull? We can’t cull koalas – culling is not permitted under the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy (and that is not going to change!)
Translocate? It would not be effective to translocate koalas – koalas would just move in from neighbouring areas, and besides, translocation does not always have a happy ending for the translocated animal.
Sterilise? It would not be effective to sterilise koalas – the trees are already struggling and sterilisation takes a long time to act to reduce a population.
Protect and restore habitat? I think this is the only way forward but one that will take a lot of effort and money.  It also won’t ‘solve’ the problem but at least we will save some Manna Gum which can serve as seed trees for future revegetation efforts.

But, what happens to the koalas?  Will they starve as the trees die? Or will they move on in search of better habitat?  I suspect there will be a bit of both.  Some koalas won’t have the energy to move.  They may already be weak from fighting during the breeding season, or may be burdened by joeys.  However, results from our radiotracking show that koalas (both males and females) are able to make long-distance movements.  Some of our koalas have moved several kilometres over a period of days or weeks.  Sometimes, they have spent several days in areas where there are no food trees.  Only time will tell….

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Cape Otway Koalas in the news

A reporter holidaying at Cape Otway noticed the dead trees and koalas and suggested to his editor that they do a story on the issue.  This article in the Geelong Advertiser resulted in a flurry of interest from radio stations (including national ABC radio) and two TV channels (7 and 9 news).  Frank Fotinas (owner of Bimbi Park) found himself in the limelight and decided to share some of the attention with me.  I was busy for most of the day with radio interviews and 2 TV interviews.  Things quietened down fairly quickly but the media has sparked the interestof the makers of the ABC show 'Catalyst'.  They will be coming to the Cape in December to film our research activities and do a more indepth story on the issue and our research.

The following is just some of the news:
Geelong Advertiser:

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Hail, gale-force winds, leeches.... and the crew kept smiling

A big thank you to my latest Earthwatch volunteers: John, Ken, Claire, Karin, Joan and Vicky.  You not only survived the blue gum experience (complete with giant leeches), being hailed on, endless tree assessments, and having two slave masters (me and Alistair), but were still smiling at the end of it.  Hmmmmm..... Is there something wrong with you?
About to leave Bimbi Park. Look at those awesome tree collars!
Some might say that the trip got off to a shaky start.  I had to attend a seminar being given by one of my students and was also collecting a visiting researcher (Ben) from the airport so was driving down later in the day.  This meant that Alistair (co-PI) had the task of meeting the team in Apollo Bay.  Unfortunately, no-one was wearing an Earthwatch t-shirt and the team were expecting to be met by me.  After a few phone calls between one of the team members, Earthwatch, myself and Alistair, the confusion was sorted out and Alistair and the team were united and on their way to Bimbi Park.
Ben and I arrived just in time for dinner (I have impeccable timing), and a discussion of the week's activities.  Alistair was keen to head back into the blue gums (this time with an EPIRB, and repellent to keep the leeches at bay), but we also had to complete koala counts, and tree assessments at some of our sites, radiotrack our collared koalas, and capture more koalas for collaring. With Alistair leading this trip, my main purpose was to help Ben with a 'bellow playback' study.  Timetabling all of this, especially considering the 'not so good' weather forecast, was going to be interesting.
So, let me tell you more about this 'bellow playback' study.  It's pretty cool stuff and a whole new field of research for me.  Ben is an expert in mammal vocalisations and has been studying this type of thing with a whole range of different species for ages though.  With koalas, he has found that there is information on the identity, especially size, of a male koala in a bellow.  In free-ranging animals, you would expect that a male koala could use this information to decide whether confronting the source of the bellow is a good idea or not.  It would make sense for a male koala to confront a smaller male because he'd likely be able to whop it in a fight; but it would probably be best for him to avoid interacting with a larger male.  We were going to put this theory to the test by broadcasting bellows (one made to sound like a huge male, and another made to sound like a small male) to my male koalas and measuring their response.
Our original plan was to catch 2 males per day for fitting with a radiocollar with an accelerometer (to measure activity), a GPS (to measure movement) and an audio recorder (to measure bellows) in response to the 'playback'.  The original plan also involved catching the koalas again after the playback to retrieve the devices.  As per any well-planned field study, the original plan went out the window after day 1.  After two catches each of Bruce and Kevin (two of my bigger males), it became clear that catching was going to be tricky and probably exhausting.  It also became clear that neither Ben or I were going to survive the stress of worrying about the $500 flimsy audio devices on the collars. The responses of the males weren't going to be easy to interpret either and would require direct observation rather than measuring with gadgets on collars.  In the playback to Kevin, Kevin actually started searching for the speaker but then became distracted by the pretty little female sitting in a nearby tree.  Bruce simply just 'didn't give a damn'! 

Dave checking out the playback speaker
In the end, Ben resorted to old fashioned observation, with video camera as backup and my audio recorder and microphone to record any bellows by the study animals.  I only had to catch each of these koalas once after the playback to take its measurements and fit it with a radiocollar for continued monitoring of movements during this breeding season.  It appears that many of our boys are like 'Bruce' and don't respond to the playbacks, while others like 'Dave' and a new boy Ben dubbed 'The Beast' go crazy, even attacking the speaker.

While Ben and I were busy playing with koalas, the rest of the team were hard at work with koala counts and tree assessments.  Alistair managed to get his blue gum work done in 3 days, with the help of 2 of the team per day.  Thankfully, the EPIRB stayed in its case and although giant leeches were observed (Claire even videoed one dancing on the datasheet), they didn't appear to be out for blood.  I think Alistair was the only one to require bandaids for a leech bite, and that leech was picked up in the Bimbi West site.

Lucie with her joey 'Lisa'
Radiotracking and the obligatory oohing and ahhing over little joeys was also completed.  We discovered that koala 'Claire' had gone wandering.  Team member 'Claire' helped me find her about 1km to the east of the site.  The team also got to help catch and handle some of the koalas we were collaring. Karin and Joan were the lucky ones who got to help catch 'Princess' (8kg and very sweet), while some less fortunates had to deal with the likes of the feisty 12kg 'Mac' in their first catching experience. We all lived to tell the tale though. Vic, a catcher who came down to help for a few days, thoughtfully demonstrated to us why you don't put your fingers in the way of an angry koala.  Erik left a nice scratch on her thumb.  Thanks Vic!

Not happy and possibly a bit confused!
 And last, but not least, the team spent some time on the last day putting up some tree collars to try and save some of the manna gum around Bimbi Park. Frank (from Bimbi Park) provided the materials and the team did an amazing job. At least one male koala was annoyed that he'd been excluded from his favourite tree.

The next trip is in November when we'll finish off the counts and tree assessments.  There'll be more catching to do (I have to change over some GPS devices), radiotracking, and ....... the list goes on and on.

I'm looking forward to it!


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Soggy koalas

I'm often asked why I don't run a fieldtrip to Cape Otway in June or July.  The answer of course is.... 'THE WEATHER'.

I spent the day yesterday looking for soggy koalas, writing on soggy data sheets, while trying very hard not to let any of the tracking gear or my camera get equally soggy.  I managed to keep myself fairly dry although am wondering what 'weather-proof' means when applied to field pants? Proven to get you wet when it rains perhaps? 


All of our collared koalas had survived the record rains of the past week and generally didn't look too wet. 

I managed to snap some photos of Bruce and Willy (not collared but tagged Gr111 in a previous study).  Willy was in the same tree we caught him in at the beginning of last year.


I also got the chance to have a closer look at 'Scar'.  I'm still amazed at how a koala could have survived an injury like his.  I also wonder how he came by it....



But back to the weather..... the graph below shows how 2012 is stacking up against long-term averages for Cape Otway.  March was certainly wetter than average and June is shaping up to be the same.  After only 9 days we're at 85% of the rainfall you would expect for the whole month. Great news if you're a Manna Gum!

My baby manna gum are slowly but surely growing although it will be a while before they can be planted out.  Bimbi Park will be doing some planting of there own in the next month or so.  They committed to planting one Manna Gum per 5 'Likes' on their Facebook page.  If you haven't already visited their page, make sure you do and 'Like' this idea:

Saturday, 19 May 2012

A quick update

I'm writing this while waiting for dataloggers to download.... it is a veeeerrrrrry slow process.

Since returning from the April Earthwatch trip, I've been waiting for the 'perfect' day to head back down to Cape Otway to catch our koalas for GPS and accelerometer removal.  There was also the task of replacing Ruby's non-functioning collar.  For me, 'perfect' = no lecturing + no rain + availability of a helper (preferably one who has caught koalas before).  That day finally came yesterday.  I left home at 5:30am, collected friend and pro koala-catcher Vic Dixon, and arrived at Bimbi Park by 9:30am. 

Ruby was easily spotted in her usual tree and caught within about 5 minutes.  Her pouch 'bulge' is now really noticeable so we were careful to hold her gently for collar removal and refitting.  Her collar definitely does not work so will be going back to Sirtrack for evaluation.

Buffy was next.  She was low enough for a ground catch but immediately started moving (like she always does!).  This time we were prepared though and had her quickly noosed and in the bag.

Erik lived up to his reputation and fought his way through the catch and grumbled while in the bag. 

Then came Nelly... this time we left Georgie in the tree and just caught Nelly.  They were soon reunited.  Georgie thought this was a much better idea!

Wally and Bruce were in neighbouring trees and only a few metres off the ground so they were super quick catches. 

By this time it was just after 1pm so we'd been motoring along and feeling quite pleased with ourselves.  Catching is so much faster when climbing isn't involved.  But Kevin was just out of reach of our flags (it looked like he'd been lusting after a young girl) and the other three (Tony Parker, Claire and Princess) were high in the tree tops.  We needed to leave by 2:30pm at the latest so we opted to catch Kevin.  By free-climbing to a low branch, we were finally able to reach him with a flag and convince him to leave the girl and come to us.  It was then over in a matter of seconds, his loggers were removed and he was set free to pursue his girl again.  We then set about the task of removing the 100s of ticks (yes, really!) that had found us during Kevin's catch.  I HATE ticks....

Princess is the only one that is still wearing an accelerometer so I will head back some time in the next few weeks to catch her, and maybe also Tony P and Claire to get their GPS loggers.

I'm now pleased to report that the loggers have done their job and there will be loads of data to analyse.  There is only one GPS (Bruce's) that is giving me some trouble due to moisture getting inside but the lights still come on so I think it will work again.

On other news, we have some baby manna gum from the seed we collected in April.  I'd nearly given up hope (it has been 2 weeks since planting):

These will eventually be planted out at Bimbi Park.

Also of possible interest, during our student field trip to Bimbi Park in November, a new species of spider was discovered:

Zephyrarchaea porchi Rix & Harvey, sp. n.
Otway Range Assassin Spider
Figs 8D, 18, 28
Type material. Holotype male: Bimbi Park, 2.2 km N. of Cape Otway Lighthouse, Victoria, Australia, 38°50'13"S, 143°30'55"E, dry pitfall trap, grassy edge of bracken rich dry sclerophyll forest, 2–5.XI.2011, N. Porch & Deakin University Wildlife Field Studies students (MV K11581).
Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym in honour of Dr Nicholas Porch, for first discovering this species in the Otway Range.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

An overdue update

OK – where do I even start? It’s been 6 months between blogs so it will be hard to catch up, but here goes....
First of all, I’d like to welcome my latest koala recruits from the April Earthwatch trip – Jo, Jann, Ruth, and Sarah; with Viki and Chris joining us from Earthwatch.  You guys totally rock!  I can’t believe the amount of data you collected for me, and as for the laughs..... absolutely priceless. I will miss you. I hope one day you will be able to visit again.
The April crew helping find tagged trees at Aire River

The April Earthwatch crew helped me catch all the koalas and fit GPS loggers and accelerometers to their collars.  We then collected hours of observations to match with the accelerometer data.  Unlike in November, the koalas didn’t do much other than sleep, rest and scratch.  We had to venture out in the evening to get feeding and interaction observations.  We also completed a census at Bimbi (we are now at 18.8 koalas/hectare!), the never-ending tree assessments, and visited the Parker Hill blue gums (April 2011 participants would remember that site!).  We didn’t get lost but Jo managed to pick up a few leeches that really liked her flavour. 
One of Jo's blood-filled leeches

We also visited Aire River and Bimb West to do some habitat work.  A highlight for me was hiking back from Aire River along the Great Ocean trail.  Amazing views!
Great Ocean Walk - looking back to Aire River

We also started on the general biodiversity monitoring component of the project.  We (well.... the EW crew) set up 13 remote cameras in manna gum woodland and got some great photos of rats, mice, possums and wallabies.
"Do you think my butt looks big?"
"Hey - I got it"

"This smells really good"

"Hmmm... what is this thing?"

"Oops... I think I've been sprung"
And the data keeps rolling in.....  Shaun (honours student) has done an amazing job of analysing a large part of the data and just submitted his thesis on home range and habitat use by koalas.  Well done Shaun! Shaun and I will now start working on a manuscript for publication.

As for the koalas....
We removed the collars from the Aire River koalas in February.  This site was hard work and there didn’t seem to be much point in continuing after the end of the breeding season.  Thankfully, Juliet who normally hangs in a tea-tree over the river, chose that day to be in an easy to access location so she was the first to lose her collar.  Unfortunately, Clive was way out the back so it was a bit of an effort to get the catching gear in to him.  It was a looooooonnnng day.
The Bimbi koalas keep us entertained with their interactions and movements and have been providing good data.  Brendan appeared to be the dominant boy throughout the breeding season and did a good job of keeping most males away from the girls.  We never collared him but he was always easy to identify by the old fight wound on his shoulder.  Unfortunately for him, being the alpha male was not good for this old injury.  We watched it get progressively worse and in January, I found what I assumed to be his carcass at the bottom of Princess’ tree.  RIP Brendan L
Dave is still hanging around, often sitting in the trees at our lunch spot.  During this last trip, he was a bit befuddled to find us sitting at the base of his tree. He eventually worked out that he could walk around us to get to the tree... Dave doesn’t seem to be very bright but is still one of my favourites J


Tony Parker has become somewhat of a legend. His new collar failed (battery problems?) in February only a few days after catching him and fitting it.  So, one of our tasks for the April Earthwatch group was to find Tony P and get his collar sorted out.  Alas, Tony P was nowhere to be seen and my new Earthwatch crew looked somewhat sceptically at me every time I mentioned Tony’s name.  Was Tony P even real? They became even more sceptical when we caught an animal I swore was Tony P, only to find he was definitely not. Oh well, now we have a new koala named Erik. More about  Erik later....
I finally found Tony P on Monday and was understandably excited. Weather was not amenable to catching so we had to wait to catch him on Tuesday.  He had lost his collar (unfortunately with GPS and accelerometer) but the green 101 eartag gave him away.  Chris was lucky enough to help catch the stubborn boy and learned how to flag. Tony P was eventually persuaded to come to the ground. He continued to give us attitude while he was in the bag but we managed to get a new collar on him and released him back to his new favourite tree.
Tony Parker - not looking too comfy on that stick.
Erik... Erik is feisty (and that’s an understatement). Erik tried really hard to attack me once we had him out of the tree.  He threw himself at me several times and it was an effort to get him in the bag. He even caused problems when in the bag.  He left his mark on Viki’s hand.
Buffy... this girl loves to run.  She started moving when she saw me climbing the tree and before Viki and I knew it, Buffy was on the ground running. I was yelling ‘Run, Viki, run. Run faster!’ and Viki was running after her but Buffy was faster.  Thankfully, Buffy did not make a wise choice of what tree to climb so we were able to easily catch her from the ground.
Ruby, Princess, Claire, and Nelly are all doing well.  Nelly’s bub ‘Georgie’ now weighs 2.3kg so is getting close to leaving home.  Claire’s bub ‘Charlotte’ is now independent but still likes to keep close to her mum.  Claire appears to remember me and flags no longer encourage her down the tree.  I had to climb to a point above her to make her move.  We also still see Lucie and Emily in the site. Emily is almost as big as her mum now.
Bruce, Wally, and Kevin look fairly ‘spent’ after the breeding season.  Kevin is still happily lusting after the girls though.  We watched him try with Lucie and on another occasion with a very small, untagged female.  Neither attempts were successful though.  Another male ‘Scar’ has moved into the site.  This male has suffered a horrific facial injury in the past... hence his name.  I saw this male in January 2011 when the injury looked to be new.  I didn’t think he’d survive but it appears he’s doing alright.  At least, we observed him trying his luck with Princess (no success though).


The next Earthwatch trip is in October but I will be tracking our koalas every two weeks (at least) until then. I’ll try to keep you better informed as to what they are doing. Until next time....