Jervis Bay

My final destination in Australia is perhaps the most beautiful.

Arriving by happenstance at sunset, I set up camp just as the red glow reflects on the pool of Honeymoon beach, a classic Sydney destination. I watch in awe as dozens of bottle-nosed dolphins swim by as the last lights go down on Jervis Bay.

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Honeymoon beach at Jervis Bay

Climbing on the rocky outcrops to get a closer view, I enjoy a beer with my fellow PhD students. A few eastern grey kangaroos pass by the campsite, and kookaburas perch on a nearby gum tree eagerly awaiting a snack.

The next day I take my time on a nice walk down to an isolated beach, called Silicon cove, named for the silky white sand lining the coast. The fact that not one soul on the beach is hauntingly beautiful, and I quickly hike back to my friends.

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My favorite beach!

We drive out to the cliffs overlooking Jarvis Bay, and to our surprise, we glimpse humpback whales breaching! We perch on the sheer drop (which I surprisingly inch myself out to the cliff of, staring in awe as the bright blue waves crash on the rocks starkly below). I’m amazed by the climbers going straight as we welcome the whales back from their long migration across the Pacific.

We continue exploring these jaw dropping cliffs, carved in sheer limestone. White bellied sea eagles entertain from above as they swoop down over the ocean, catching fish as I stumble over the rough terrain. All sorts of beautiful song birds line the thick coastal heath trail. Cockatoos, honeyeaters, and a stunning fairy wren are among my favorites.

What a wonderful trip to conclude my time in Australia!

Feb Fieldwork Reflections

Snakes, Ticks, and Leeches Oh MY!

Things are going better this trip! It’s actually fun catching lots of animals, and it helps that we have a third volunteer. I feel bad because I don’t really want to work/am pretty unmotivated as the project isn’t along the lines of my interests and I feel like all the work  may not be worth it. I want to focus on the quoll reintroduction for majority of the research, as that’s where my motivation is and I wasn’t able to satisfy it. However, the third volunteer is a big help. Her name is Amoi and she has really shifted the not-so-great dynamic Matt and I had. She is very helpful and encouraging and calls Matt out when he’s not explaining things well or not being very understanding.

I’m getting better at 4WD too which is scary, but fun. We also saw a spot tailed quoll in the morning one of the traps, a big boy hissing and running around the cage. We released him near a wombat burrow and he went scrambling down the hole!

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A common wombat. They run surprisingly fast when spooked for something that wombles so slowly along the road.

The best part has been the spotlighting, where I saw my first (three!) wombats! They are so cute and waddle along the road, but when they run off they can really move! One let us get so close that we could almost touch it on approach, then it bolted across the road. I was so upset when I hit the wombat during my first ten minutes driving at night in the field that I spiraled into depression until the next day. I was happy by evening though after a long afternoon setting up traps for the antechinus.

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An antechinus, the marsupial that we caught over 100 individuals of during the February-March trip!

There were many possums and greater gliders at the site with their bright orange eyes. The possums just freeze in the bright torch light with their pig-like noses and big fluffy tails. They are more closely related to other marsupials than the possums in the US.

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A common brushtail possum we captured. Matt let him go because they are too difficult to handle

To end the night, Matt heard the sound of a sugar glider knocking on wood. I sprinted over to find the little creature perched up in a tree. Its wing flaps were visible as it turned its head away from the light. They are very cute and we watched it in awe as it sat still.

We tried to do spotlight surveys again and got stuck in a hailstorm. It was scary and the tree fall was bad, so we cleared the road and had to chuck sticks away while Amoi did a good job of not killing us with the car as she followed along. 

I was inspired by flocks of birds and kangaroos to start doing videos of myself in the fielD. I loved seeing the yellow tailed black cockatoos this morning up close. They are so cool and could approach within 5m!

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A Yellow-tailed black cockatoo keeping us company as we checked traps for possums and quolls

 

 

We caught lots of Antechinus one morning, and boy are they are fun to play with! We put them all in a bag then released them at the same time in a mass exodus of cuteness.

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An antechinus frozen after being released on a nearby log

Food in the field: I really am happy hereafter a 8 hour sleep, productive afternoon inside, healthy egg breakfast and lunch, and no processed snacks! And the view from the house is beautiful. We even had a delicious gnocchi dinner!

We took a day trip to Scone (and had some tasty scones!) and I got to practice driving over some steep curves. The cold mountain air is very stark, and we took a jacket out as we stopped at a wetland heath. Matt, Amoi and I explored a bit by going to lookouts, wetland heaths with grass that flowed like waves across the green sea. We took a birding break at a beautiful lookout, and Matt insists he saw a rare Rose robin. I just love looking at all the common birds, like rosellas, fan tails, and cockatoos. 

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My favorite lookout at Barrington Tops National Park!

On the last day of collecting camera traps, Matt almost stepped on a snake. It turns out there were two, in the middle of having sex. They were going at it in the sun while we were checking traps. The penis appeared stuck in vagina, so she pulled the male away towards the burrow still attached. The 3m long conglomeration of snakes appeared like a two headed serpent, as the female pulled the male back towards the log.

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Red-bellied snakes in the midst of mating

Throughout the state forest, there were also lyrebirds! We went in search of them as Matt and I got devoured by leeches, which are 2 in long and suck for 3 hours, swelling up like a water balloon. I also got a tick bites, which Matt said not to worry about, but I ended up getting a strange rash between my hip and my groin. To be continued….

Update: It was a parasite infection! Because of this strange illness, I had trouble sleeping and there were even some behavioral changes. With some holistic medical treatment the infection cleared right up and I went back to normal.

 

“She’ll Be ‘Right”

I had a lot of fun while I was homeless in Sydney for two months.

Don’t get me wrong; I was really lucky that I had friends rent out their rooms to me while they were away. But I still would have loved a place. I even found one I thought I could call “home” while I was in and out of fieldwork four hours north of Sydney.

It all began when I, foolishly, decided to leave my perfect, beautiful place on the beach in Coogee, Sydney because I thought I could do better. I was wrong.

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Just a walk around my favorite neighborhood study spot in Sydney! 

At first it was like an adventure, bouncing around different lab members’ homes and learning more about them and their research. And I always had enough graduate funding to pay for a night or two at a hostel when needed. But, after a bit, the uncertainty of not knowing where I was going to be in a week or two caught up with me, and I was tired of living moment to moment.

I would still take breaks and enjoy myself once in a while. I remember going snorkeling after moving in to a friend’s place in Maroubra, which was one of the few chances I got to see some of Sydney’s marine wildlife. I would take advantage of a house inspection near a beach and go see some groupers, sting rays,  and even some squid!

My favorites are the goatfish with their whiskers that clean the bottom of the sand, searching for crustaceans and other hidden snacks. The water is warm enough to swim in during March and the bays are protected as well. Between the fluorescent blue algae, patches of kelp, and alien looking fish all camouflaged to blend in, it is like exploring another world.

I even went free-diving for the first time after I moved into a place that I thought would be my new home in April. I remember picking up on some of the subtle cultural differences, such as being more laid back (and flakey), which made it difficult for making plans.  After living around Sydney for so long, I felt as if I was still going through culture shock after 6 months, as I discovered the little things that are different. For example, people being indirect about rejection sort of leaves you hanging and guessing as to what people mean, while people from the Western hemisphere are usually a bit more straightforward. Australians also tend to “beat around the bush,” so to speak.  

And I mean it when I say I was lucky. I found myself talking more and more to homeless people, understanding how hard it is for them to find help for themselves when their is a shelter just around the corner because of something called tunnel vision. Living moment to moment takes a toll on your long term planning, and some days they might just have needed a helping hand or some leftover food. One time I offered assistance and was berated, but another time I gave someone some takeaway (Aussie slang for “takeout”) and I think just giving them the time of day helped. 

How To Catch A Wallaby

Catching a wallaby isn’t hard, especially in a sanctuary full of them. Bridled nail-tail wallabies that haven’t seen a day in the wild came flocking to us as we baited large cage traps with sweet potato slices and hay. Occasionally when deploying a trap, I would have to clear out large spiderwebs of redbacks—one of Australia’s deadliest spiders. It wasn’t too bad working as a team with Aly and her friend, Tahneal, and we even finished by the time the beautiful sunset rolled around!

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A Redback spider, closely related to the Black Widow spider commonly found in the US.

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The always beautiful Queensland sunsets are like an alarm for nocturnal animals—time to get up and work!

Many wallabies born in the sanctuary are completely oblivious to any danger, so they came out immediately to investigate the cage traps. However, we were after wallabies large enough to be released into the wild, and if they were wild-born they were often more wary of the traps. After getting the car stuck in the mud, we only had two nights to trap as many as we could. Catching one of these in a pen full of sanctuary-born wallabies would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Most of the wallabies we caught weren’t large enough; we identified who they were by scanning a microchip implant. If the wallaby was from the sanctuary, we let it go. One of the wallabies was a juvenile so precious it almost hurt to look at it. Given this wallaby was new and in need of identification for further study, I learned how to inject a microchip used for identifying the wallabies. Aly held firmly as I lifted the skin and slid the needle in between the juvenile’s shoulder blades, gently placing the grain-sized chip used for identification. I was so worried on my first try that I would “stuff it up”-an Aussie phrase for messing up—but the technical procedure went perfectly under Aly’s instruction.

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A juvenile bridled nail-tail wallaby. Every one born offers a new hope for the population, of which there are only just over 500 left.

Finally, we caught a wallaby perfect for release outside the fenced nursery–big enough to defend itself against predators like cats and wild dogs. This single wallaby was a valuable data point for my friend’s thesis project, comparing the nursery-raised wallabies with the wild ones in terms of survival and predator awareness.

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The first wallaby released back into the wild! Off he goes into the darkness, one of just over 500 of his kind. 

The next day of trapping was even easier with a car to drive us around. I got better at wallaby wrangling, which entails getting a hessian sack under their rump and scooping them out of the cage while keeping the head covered. I then helped Aly take head, foot, and other measurements of health. The coolest part was finding the pouch, a firm spot just above the cloaca–the single hole marsupials have for poo and pee. I put two fingers inside the small fold and pried the loose skin apart. To my surprise, there was a wallaby joey staring back up at me, a few months old and sucking on one of four teats. Its oversized feet and huge eyes made it look like something from another planet. Sometimes if the mother is stressed, she will jettison the baby, so we had to be very careful when handling the wallabies. This was crucial when preparing the wallabies for release.

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A juvenile bridled nail tail wallaby and her “mum.” Only a few weeks old and still sucking at the teat in the wallaby’s pouch. 

Just as Aly had given up on catching all of the wallabies needed to release into the wild, we approached the last two traps. Sure enough, they contained the last two wallabies that needed to be released, so we attached GPS collars in order for Aly to keep tabs on then set them free outside the fence. A suitable ending for a wild trip!

 

Smith Lake

Update: This post was written January 10, 2019. 

Tick check! This frequent activity occurs every time I get back from the forests surrounding Smith Lake, a part of Myall Lakes National Park (~three hours north of Sydney). As I carefully sift through my clothes and inspect every inch of my body for signs of ticks, I reflect on the long weekend spent preparing for the field biology course taught at the University of New South Wales.

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The ocean view, just outside Myall Lakes National Park, traditionally land occupied by the Worimi peoples.

The site is like a lakeside retreat, with a shimmering blue pool just beyond the simple cabins where my professor and I are staying. A butcher bird that knows no fear lands just a foot away from me on the balcony outside my cabin, chirping its robotic sounding call.

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Despite the grim appearance, butcher birds actually have quite a melodic call

The goal is to set up cameras to take pictures of the native wildlife for the advanced field biology course introducing students to scientific techniques. The cameras are placed in three different habitat types, all with their own sets of challenges.

The first location is in the forest, where I was the only one to escape unscathed, while the rest of the team was stung and bitten by jumping ants. The beautiful eucalyptus forests provide shade from the hot sun, and besides the ants there are few other bugs. Next up is the abandoned farm habitat, where hiking through thick grass surely led to lots of tick bites. As I tripped over heaps of hidden stumps and branches, I stumbled out of the thicket onto the hilltop, complete with a beautiful view of the lakes! Hiking along the water sure makes for a great experience, and it almost makes up for the difficulty of the trek there.

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Family recipe Latkes, fieldwork style! 

After setting up cameras, we take a break for the day and end with a barbecue by the stream. I contributed fried potato pancakes, known as latkes, to celebrate the first night of Channukah, an eight-day holiday. A cheeky kookaburra came down and tried to steal one of the steaks from the grill, but other than that it was nice cooking outside.

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A kookabura, resting in an old gum (Eucaluptus) tree

The last location at the swamp proved to be the most challenging, yet one of the most beautiful. Fortunately, there were some tracks already carved through the thick marshy grasses of the swamp making it easier to follow. Much of the swamp grass provided ample foot cover above the murky waters, but there were many holes plunging down into the water that I accidentally stepped in. Though the muddy boots slowed me down, it helped me to appreciate the beautiful scene before me.

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I felt as if this “Christmas Bell flower” (named for its annual peak bloom around the holiday season) was whispering to me “Go West.”

Many flowers were in bloom and we discovered some interesting insects around, including a praying mantis and some sparkly beetles. I even saw what appeared to be a familiar face, the monarch butterfly, which I found strange since I am used to seeing them in the Americas. White bellied sea eagles and kites flew amongst the marsh trees, and even though it was tricky setting up cameras here, it makes for a great field site!

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A praying mantis camouflaged to match the brown of the swamp.

After the work was done, we celebrated with a quick stop at the iconic Seal Rocks for a dip in the ocean and some pies for lunch. Though we didn’t see too many animals, hopefully the cameras I helped set up will capture some interesting photos for the students next year! (Update: The students saw a koala on one of the camera traps I set up! I’m jealous).

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Probably my best field outfit yet. Yes, I walked into the pie shop and the grocery store dressed like this. 

 

 

Bouddi National Park

When a beautiful Argentinian man invites you to hop on a train and go to an equally beautiful national park, you do it. And that’s how I, a hardworking grad student, skipped my responsibilities and spontaneously went up to Bouddi National Park. 

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The cliffs of Bouddi National Park. PC: You know who 😉

The train ride lasts an hour and costs only $4; the journey north of Sydney through Kurringai-Chase National park was a scenic adventure in and of itself. The train zoomed past pristine national parks with forested hills sloping down to meet deep blue rivers. This was pretty much the same terrain found within Bouddi National Park.

Given that renting a bike costs $50 and an uber to the park entrance from Woy Woy train station cosst $30 (the bus from Gosford would have taken over an hour), it made logical sense to take the 20 minute Uber to the park. Stopping only at a cute cafe with chic art and Phoebe Bridges playing on the sound system, we set off for the park.

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I’m sorry to break it to you, but the entirety of New South Wales has similar coastlines

To start the hike we landed at Putty beach, a bay protected by the surrounding cliffs. Any given Tuesday it was nearly empty, and if the November waters were warmer I would’ve been tempted to go for a swim. The hike began up the stairs from the beach over the sandstone cliffs. 

The sandstone cliffs are easily sculpted and molded over millennia by the waves and strong winds to create some fascinating formations [see first photo]. My favorites included a perfectly isometric lattice, swirls of orange in a grid of squares, and some naturally occurring benches!

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Actually in Sydney/Little Bay but you get the point. Sorry Kevin for wearing the same bathing-suit PC: Kind Stranger 😉

I am in awe of the ways in which these cliffs can be sculpted to resemble patterns that are familiar to man, and it was so much fun hiking through them with the beautiful view of the pacific, to boot!

Beyond these formations, I remember beginning to struggle up and down stairs that covered the sand dunes, making them easier to hike up. However, with the sun rising higher in the sky and the stair sets getting steeper, I struggled to keep up pace. 

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I think I had my first ever asthma attack somewhere just before getting to this beach

The only reprieve was in a thick patch of forest, offering shade and the calls of a whipbird (sounds just like a whip being cracked [actually a duet: comment for more info]), almost like an oasis. Skinks slithered through the leaf litter as I stepped by, and butterflies swarmed the clearings. Hiking through the thick forest right by the sea is very enjoyable, and I made a vow to do more forest hikes near water! (Update: I have)

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Hibiscus Harlequin Bugs (Actually in Feb in Sydney but you get the idea) PC: iPhone 7 (that my mom argued for over an hour with the apple store [so I wouldn’t have to go to Australia with a dumb] phone).

We came down to another beach for a quick picnic before heading back up the stairs to finish the trek. There were times when we could’ve given up, but kept pushing on until we came to the final beach. Here, our reward awaited us and we took a nap in the shade, exhausted from a trek that was well worth the effort. (Update: This post was written in November, 2019. Happy Thanksgiving to my friends and family back home!)

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We probably should’ve just gotten Reyna’s arepas in Newtown. Oh well

Stuck in the mud

As we scooped away mud at the bottom of the tires, the rain started pouring down again, filling in all our hard work. I began to get discouraged and wonder how I ended up digging out a car stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere in Queensland, Australia?

I chose to go volunteering for my friend Aly’s project instead of doing the responsible thing and working at the university, tackling my upcoming deadlines head on. I was hoping to escape my problems and see some bridled nail-tailed wallabies, of which there are only 500 left in the wild. To aid in their conservation, a fenced area that keeps out invasive cats and foxes was established to protect juvenile wallabies until they are big enough to survive in the wild. Aly is studying the effectiveness of this strategy for her PhD.

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A bridled nail-tail wallaby in Avocet nursery, an enclosure that keeps these endangered species safe from predators

Her car has been with Aly through thick and thin, surviving 18 hour road trips from Sydney to Emerald, Queensland, driving past emus, bustards, and plenty of hawks. Some of the strangest trees can be seen on this journey, including orange-barked eucalypts and bottle trees which look like something straight out of Dr. Seuss.

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A several-hundred year old bottle tree. These trees were cultivated by the Traditional Owners of this land and carried across Australia.

Cyclone Trevor came for us that first night, the tailwinds drowning the campsite as we set up camp and through the night. The muddy roads made driving to the nursery tricky, and one wrong turn led us to getting stuck in the mud, literally. After trying all afternoon to get the car out, we gave up and walked back to the campsite, defeated.

The next day, we began by shoveling mud, collecting and shoving sticks under the tires, and laying out carpets for traction. Aly drove the quad bike connected to the back of her car with a rope, and I pushed on the car while her friend tried to reverse. Somehow, it worked and the car broke free from the mud. The feeling of getting the car out was probably one of the best in the world, second only to the bucket shower I took back at the camp when we drove back. A shower, which I might mention, was shared with a redback spider, one of the deadliest in the world.

The campsite is rustic but well-equipped, with water collected from rain buckets and a latrine decorated with Dreamtime stories.

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Dreamtime Story on the side of the latrine. Text reads: “Near a dry creek bed where the everlastings are just starting to flower under the shady gum trees the black fellas have gone hunting dingoes.”

Finally, after three days I got the chance to see a bridled nail tail wallaby. Right as we entered the nursery one bounced up to greet us. This little marsupial was raised in a reserve free of predators, making it completely naive towards the danger I posed as a 5-foot-five predator walking around. The wallaby, none-the-wiser, was happy to nibble at some spare sweet potato and was incredibly accommodating to photos. These wallabies hold their arms out to the side like a T-rex, and watching them bound off into the shrubs is incredibly entertaining as their arms sway from side to side. However, these individuals would likely not survive in the wild, which is why research like Aly’s (and mine!) is important to develop strategies to improve their wariness towards predators.

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Captive-bred wallabies–great for selfies! Not so great for surviving in the wild.

You can follow Aly’s adventures and find out more about the plight of the bridled nail tailed wallabies by following her IG @eco.aly or on twitter