volunteering for the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat
Recovery Project my friend Therese and I found that we were well and truly
hooked on wildlife volunteer projects. There is something very rewarding about
helping out on a project that aims to conserve and protect wildlife. So we set
about finding a new venture that we could be a part of.
doing a little research on the world wide web we found a project co-ordinated
by the Western Australian Murdoch University and the Department of Environment
and Conservation. The project was a mortality study on the threatened Western
Western Ringail Possum is classified as vulnerable, listed nationally
as a threatened species. Unlike the Eastern Ringtail Possum
of NSW (also known as the Common Ringtail Possum) the Western
Ringtail is an urban possum living in and around suburban Busselton
and some of the surrounding towns. The Western Ringtail Possum's
nightly activity is much like that of the suburban Brushtail
Possum in NSW. Brushtail Possum's in the Busselton area are
more secretive and shy, preferring to stay away from heavily
built up areas. It's interesting how the roles seem to be reversed
in the two states.
Western Ringtail Possum is under threat due to urban development as more and more
new housing developments are constructed and prime habitat is cleared. Sadly,
the possum is also sometimes thought of as vermin as it enjoys visiting backyard
gardens in search of delicious fruit and flowers, which is generally not tolerated
by the public. The possum is also predated on by foxes and feral cats.
to these threats DEC decided to take action to conserve the
species by translocating individuals from habitat before it
was cleared and from suburban back yards when complaints were
of the project's aim was to discover if the translocation of
the Western Ringtail Possum's was actually working and that's
where Helen McCutcheon comes into the story. Helen's study of
translocated possums - or at least the "hands on"
part of the project - was coming to a close and all the possums
involved in the study needed to be recaptured, assessed, have
their radio tracking collars removed and released back into
their home ranges for the very last time.
discovering the project Therese and I quickly registered our interest with Helen,
and were ecstatic when we were accepted as volunteers. Plans were set, plane tickets
were booked and before you knew it we were on our way to Busselton, Western Australia,
where the project was based.
is a diary of our time with the possums...
lives in Queensland and I in NSW so Therese flew into Sydney
so that we could travel together the rest of the way to Western
Australia. When we met at the airport we were like excited little
school girls on a big adventure - and so we were! (on a big
adventure, that is, not school girls... that was a looooooong
flew into Perth late morning and were collected by my dear friend Marg
Larner who had a great day planned for us. She took us to her friends
cafe in rural outskirts of Perth and we enjoyed a long chat and a great lunch
topped off with a glass (or several!) of delicious Western Australian wine. We
were then taken on a tour of the estuaries to see Marg's pelican friends. It was
terribly cold but we had a lovely day.
the early evening Marg handed us over to Helen and we drove to Busselton where
we were to spend the next week working with the Western Ringtail Possums.
the morning we traveled to one of the study sites, the Ludlow
Tuart Forest, to carry out a routine mortality check so we could
find out which possums had or hadn't survived the night.
tracking collars emitted different pitched frequencies for either
"alive and moving" or "dead and still".
The possums in this area were keeping their collars on for longer
than the rest of the project possums so Helen could continue
the study on successful translocation later in the year.
Later in our week we would grid an area of the Ludlow Tuart
Forest so that the next round of volunteers could carry out
a possum count to determine the population in the forest.
dark we headed out to another site at Gelorup and this is where we would be spending
most our nights for the rest of the week, tracking and capturing Western Ringtail
in the day Helen had taken us to the forest for a walk around
so that Therese and I could get our bearings and be able to
find our way around at night. It didn't work for me! When we
started walking through the dark forest I quickly became completely
lost and no idea which way I was walking or even where the car
had been parked! Luckily Helen knew the area like the back of
her hand and guided us easily through the bush.
found and successfully captured Frodo, a male Western Ringtail.
Each possum had been given a name and identification number
- the volunteers who were involved in the beginning of the study
(capturing and applying the collars) were given the honour of
naming the individuals. Frodo, even though our first, turned
out to be one of the easiest possums to catch.
Frodo had been securely restrained in his calico bag which was placed inside a
dark and warm box we set out into the night again. By now, each of us had our
own job. Helen was "tracker girl" as she walked up front with the antenna
following the sounds of the radio collars. Then there was "dart girl"
- Therese who very gently carried the box of pre-made sedation darts (one trip
and the mechanism inside the darts would be triggered resulting in useless darts
and a wasted night). And then there was me - "gun girl". I carried the
dart gun ready for Helen. As luck would have it the gun also served as an excellent
spider web remover.
we found Amelia. Over the course of the study Helen had become
an excellent marksman but every now and then a dart would go
skimming past the target possum (they are rather small critters
with rather small behinds!) and into the forest floor. It would
then take us several minutes to find the dart that was fitted
with reflective tape, three head torches sweeping amongst the
leaf litter until one of us yelled "found it".
That was the 'un-fun' part of the night.
Helen aimed for Amelia's tiny butt the dart skimmed, lodged
but was then scratched out and it fell to the ground. While
Helen kept a close eye on Amelia for signs that the sedative
had worked Therese and I busied ourselves looking for the stray
dart. After some time it was apparent that Amelia had not received
enough sedative to render her unconscious and she kept a firm
hold on the branch, glared at us rather rudely, then slowly
moved higher up the tree out of reach and curled up in a fork
for a short sleep. We continued to watch her for a while but
decided to abort our mission after she began to stir as she
was too high for a second attempt.
the early hours of the morning we'd had enough - we were tired, cold and hungry
so we headed back to the lab-come-volunteers-quarters for a few hours of sleep.
possum is assessed the morning after capture, so for the first
task of our second day we processed Frodo. While still safe
and snug inside his calico bag Helen anaesthetised him ready
for the procedure. This was Therese's and my first up-close-and-personal
experience with a ringtail possum so it was an exciting time.
As with all the possums in the study, Frodo was weighed and
measured and labs were taken, including blood, urine and faeces,
eyes swabs and saliva swabs, and then finally the tracking collars
were removed. Frodo was then placed in recovery where he was
slowly returned to consciousness. He was then left to sleep
for the rest of the day.
dark we returned to the forest. We released Frodo back to his
home and our
next mission was a mortality check on Amelia to make sure she
was OK. She was perfectly fine but sitting high in a tree way
out of reach - maybe she knew we'd be back? - so we left her
and we went in search of another possum.
a while we found Merlin and we set up our capture equipment. Unfortunately we
failed to secure Merlin as it was cold, wet and windy and the conditions were
not great for darting possums. So the night ended early and we got to bed not
long after midnight.
third night out was quite successful, even if our first capture attempt proved
not to be - Kiri, a female, was skimmed by the dart which made her a little sleepy
but not enough for capture.
then went back to find Merlin. After the failed attempt to capture
him the night before, we were determined to get him this time.
We set up our equipment and then for the next hour and a half
we watched, we waited, we attempted to dart, we cursed as Merlin
was a quick mover and then we waited some more. We were nearing
the end of our perseverance when Helen saw a window of opportunity
as Merlin presented his rump to us as if to say "oh
all right, let's get this over with!"
the dart had found its target Therese and Helen stood underneath
the spot where Merlin sat in the tree. It was my job to give
continual updates on his position in the tree and his state
of consciousness. Then, just as he was about to fall I'd yell
"now!" and the girls would capture him in the
large blanket held out to protect his fall. Merlin was then
settled in his bag, and we moved on to the next possum.
a female, was tracked but found to be too high to capture. We then found Arwen,
another female, who turned out to be our easiest capture for the entire week -
just 15 minutes to dart and bag! A quick assessment of Arwen showed that she had
twin joeys in the pouch!
two successful captures and being well after midnight we returned to the lab.
was processed first. Knowing just how vulnerable the species
are, it was heartening to see the two wiggling joey's the size
of jelly beans in Arwen's pouch. Merlin was then processed and
both possums were secured and left to sleep for the day.
night, after Arwen and Merlin were released back into their
home ranges, we captured Kiri (a female) in 20 minutes. We were
getting better working in our team and knew each of our jobs
without having to discuss a capture plan.
then tracked Igrain but failed an attempted capture, then Nora, Leelu, and Amelia
were found, but all three were too high in the trees.
then decided that we would attempt capture of Luna, a twelve
month old female possum who was one of last years Joey's
Western Ringtail Possums generally share their mothers home
ranges and males tend to venture off to find a new territory.
Luna went against this usual trend however and traveled a whopping
1.5 kilometres in the two nights after her first capture when
the monitoring collar was applied.
was darted quite quickly but it took some time for the sedative to start working.
She became very groggy but not enough to release her grip and fall to the open
blanket. Helen decided that it was too risky to leave Luna in such a state so
out came the extendable pole to aid in the capture and it wasn't long before we
had Luna bagged and were on our way home.
- our last day
and I were a little sad to be working our last day with Helen and the possums
- but what a lovely last day it was.
assessment was first of the day and we were all exciting to
see that she had a larger Joey in the pouch. As best she could,
Helen measured the joeys head which was about 21mm in length.
The Joey looked plump and healthy so we didn't attempt any more
assessment. If it had been a bit bigger, the Joey would have
been removed from the pouch and properly assessed before being
returned to mums warm and dark pouch.
also had a Joey, another little jelly bean. Helen was very pleased
to see that Luna's big move hadn't distressed her at all and
she was healthy and content enough to breed.
lab were interesting. The new spot she'd decided to set up home
in had primarily Marri Gums and not the Peppermint Gums of the
Gelorup forest. As a result her wee was a much darker colour,
as you can see in the photos of Frodo's labs and Luna's labs.
on dark we released Kiri and Luna and we had the pleasure of
watching Luna for a while as she sat and watched us.
it was our last night we decided to celebrate our week by going
out to dinner and enjoying a glass or two of champagne. We had
been successful in capturing and removing the collars of most
of the projects possums in the Gelorup forest - there were only
a few more for the next lot of volunteers to capture.
me, releasing the possums were the most rewarding experiences
of my time helping on the project. Over many months these little
possums had been through several captures and assessments and
had what must have been very annoying collars on - sometimes
science is a harsh mistress! But these little possums took it
very well and due to excellent planning by Helen and her team
there were very few signs of distress in the animals.
of their use in the project a wealth of information on this
endangered species has been collated and now these animals have
an even better chance of being understood, managed - and saved!