Koala tracking - day 1
Today our first day of working in the field alongside Desley and Alistair. We were up early to have breakfast and pack our lunches and snacks given that we would not be returning our accommodation until much later in the afternoon. The sun was out and it was going to be a good day.
We headed out to where our field work was to be based at which was approx. a 5 minute walk from our accommodation. Once we had reached our site we made a base camp where we would leave our equipment, backpacks etc whilst we commenced our tracking. The area we were to work in was comprised of Manna Gum Trees and our objective today was to cover approximately 1 hectare of ground looking for koalas. This required to stop at each manna gum looking for Koala's.
We separated into 3 groups and once we located a Koala in a tree we tied a piece of blue tape around the tree, we wrote the number of each of the koala's we had located on the blue tape. We used the GPS to register/mark the koalas satellite position and the satellite location of the tree that the koala was in. By the end of the day we had located and logged about 18 koalas.
Tagging and catching - days 2 & 3
With breakfast done and out of the way we made our way to the field where we would spend the day catching, tagging and fitting koalas with radio collars along with accelerometers. Data downloaded from accelerometers will provide a measure of energy expenditure by individuals of koala's for up to 7 days. The GPS would allow for measuing movement over the coming months to determine seasonal movements and home range.
There are 2 types of catches:
Ground catch - this is a fairly easy catch which can be done from the ground
Tree catch - this is more labour intensive as it requires climbing a tree with a winch and using flags in the tree to bring the koala down
We located our first Koala - this would be a Ground Catch. The koala was approx 7 metres up the tree and resting on a branch. Desley & Alistair extended the flag poles (approx 6 metres) with plastic flags on the end. The technique was to get the flags as close as possible to the koalas face and shake the flags in front of their face so the koala would commence backing down the tree. This technique was repeated many times until the koala was at a level that could be handled.
Once restrained, I would open up the sack and bring the koalas head out with one hand out whilst holding the sack, with the other hand around the koalas neck (similar to a bib), this allowed Desley/Alistair to complete some tasks such as head measuring, looking at the teeth to determine the koalas age and feel the koalas body to ascertain the condition of the koala (koalas have a great deal of muscle with very little fat).
The last action was to place a radio collar around the koalas neck. This meant that a recorded number along with other details was programmed to the radio collar which corresponded with the koala that had been caught for future tracking. These radio collars are battery operated and can last up to a period of 3 years.
During this process data sheets were completed making note of the tree and its height that the koala was captured in, the weight and head length of the koala, age of the koala, overall condition of the koala, the type of catch and also how long the catch took . It is interesting to note that the Victorian Koala is much larger than their relatives in Queensland. The heaviest koala we caught was approx 14kgs, in Queensland the heaviest koala would be 9kgs.
We each took turns of handling the koalas. When it was my turn I was very nervous. My koala was very strong as he weighted approx. 13kgs and was quite big. I managed to handle the koala and feel his fur which was very, very soft and surprising he was very quiet while I handled him. I got to name my Koala and I named him Nelson. Over these 2 days, we caught and collared 10 koala's a great number to work with.
Tracking koalas and tree measurements - days 4 onwards
We set out again with all our equipment, (radio tracking equipment, measuring taps, data sheets, clinometer's, metal tree tags and nails). Once we arrived at our makeshift base camp we split up into 2 groups to commence the tracking of the koala's which we previously radio collared the day before.
Our team had an antenna, data sheets and GPS. Firstly I needed the frequency to enable me to find
the koalas, this was done by tuning the frequency to the radio collar of the koala that we wanted to locate. For example - the previous day we put a collar on a Koala which had a number of 380, this is number that I tuned the GPS to locate the koala. Once this was done I needed to hold the antenna up high and listen for the signal. This meant that I needed to complete a circle and listen from where the beep was the loudest, I would follow the signal until it was very loud which meant that I had located the koala. Sometimes there was more that 1 koala in the same tree which meant that I needed to use binoculars to see if one of the koala's located had a collar and if so, I knew that I had identified the right koala. There is a definite skill in using the GPS to track Koala's especially if there is a group of 3 or 4 koalas in the same location you really need to use your listening skills, then your observation skills to ensure that the correct koala is located as the data collected needs to be correct when being collated.
Once the correct koala had been identified in the tree data sheets needed to be completed. Data collected was, which tree the koala was located in, how many other koalas in the immediate area less than 20 metres away, what was the koala doing (sleeping, rest awake, active, eating etc). The reason why this data needed to be collected was to get an understanding if the koalas were moving and if so, how far and to which tree, how long they stayed in the same tree, and what activity they were doing at the time.
This data gathered over a period of time would show the range of how often the koala would move, how often the koala would move, the size class of the trees the koalas were using, the activities the koala was doing and when do they do these activities. All this data would then be entered into a database which would allow us to understand koala behaviour in more detail and allow this data to be compared with other koala data collected in Queensland.
Measurements included tree species and composition, tree density and tree size (DBH - Diameter Breast Height, height, canopy area). Canopy condition of each tree would be assessed through photo points and visual assessment of canopy cover.
We began to place a metal tag on each tree that had been previously been identified where our radio collared koala's had been first located on the first day of our field work. The tree number was marked on the metal tag and tag hammered into the tree to allow for easy tree identification.
The measuring of the tree involved measuring the diameter of the tree base at breast height including how many arms to the tree. The height of the tree was measured by a clinometer.
By the end of the first day we had measured 35 trees, and by the end of the expedition we had logged up to 48 trees.
The final chapter - our departure
Our final day has arrived and whilst we were all sad to leave this great adventure it was also time that we did. We all agreed that we could not have picked a better group of people in which to learn about the environment and our fury friends the koalas with whom this expedition would not have been possible.
WOW - what an experience!
I would like to thank Nab for giving me a once in a lifetime experience and the opportunity to participate in an Earthwatch Expedition compliments of Nabs existing volunteering and community opportunities and for providing Nab employees access to getting involved in Community and Corporate Responsibility across Nabs organisation.
Earthwatch programs are a fantastic opportunity to gain a greater understanding of big, environmental and ecological issues and then the knowledge sharing with various stakeholders on these big issues and the learning's gained.