An Amphibious Odyssey
Earthwatch volunteer, Melissa Hatty, joins Dr Michael Mahony in New South Wale's national parks to study Australia's most unique and unusual frogs.
I first stumbled across Earthwatch a few years ago when I was inadvertently recruited onto another research project at work, the aim of which was to learn more about Earthwatch’s current, and potential, supporter base. I’m a part-time analyst for research company UltraFeedback, and a passionate environmentalist, so I was mildly perplexed that my first encounter had been so accidental. The Earthwatch concept immediately intrigued me – so anyone can don a (pseudo) scientist’s cap and spend time in the field? Nice! I spent many hours in the months that followed scanning the expedition guide, daydreaming about some far flung adventure…but wondering how I’d fit it into my chaotic uni schedule.
So when the MD announced the inaugural UltraFeedback / Earthwatch Fellowship in mid-2007, my heart started racing. That I would apply was a given; but in typical student fashion, I left the application til the last minute. My enthusiasm was clearly evident, but had I honestly put enough thought into selling myself for the job?
Indeed I had. Excellent! I decided to head north and go frog-spotting for the weekend. "It's a family weekend, there'll be a few kids there", I'm warned when I booked my place on the expedition. I'm one of those Gen Xers who never quite grew up…right then, this should be fun!
So it's late Friday afternoon and I’m greeted in northern Sydney by a smiling Ross Knowles, a kind and knowledgeable field assistant who generously offered to transport me to our campsite at the Watagan National Park. Upon arrival at the campsite, we quickly set up the tents before the PI, Dr Michael Mahony, gives us a run-down of the ins and outs of frog spotting and handling. Oh, and there's leeches, lots of them. I smile down at my new, leech-proof hiking boots, yet silently curse my frugality for not buying those gaiters.
Darkness falls and we're off down the creek to test our newly-acquired frog skills. We don headlamps and traipse along the creek bank, and it's not long before the kids emerge with exclamations of delight, proudly displaying the frogs they've caught. Michael explains a bit about frog anatomy, how to differentiate male from female and their breeding behaviour, then it's back to camp for a nightcap.
Just as we arrive back at the campsite, the heavens open and we're left to scramble for shelter from the rain. A few campers bid goodnight and make for their tents, while some of us huddle in the 'kitchen' tent and start cracking open the snacks intended for the kids. It's not long before a bottle of red wine appears and I'm wishing Michael had mentioned it was BYO.
Frogs are generally best found at night so the next morning we're off to catch tadpoles. A short drive later and we're out of the 4WDs, trekking faithfully behind the research team. Stopping at a murky waterhole, we're briefed on what to look out for and the kids jump – almost head first – into the murky water in search of tadpoles. Not about to be upstaged by a bunch of energetic pre-pubescents, I whip off my boots, roll my trousers to mid-thigh and head for the water. The pond floor is deliciously slimy and the water instantly churns with mud; tadpole spotting seems a near impossibility. I watch in amusement, and with a touch of envy, as the kids repeatedly leap from the water, triumphant in their catch. My own tadpole hunt was far from fruitful, but I thoroughly enjoyed the attempt!
Late afternoon and we're back in the 4WDs, heading to another site in search of the Giant Barred Frog. This species disappeared from the area and was reintroduced by Michael and his team; we're here to see how they're doing. Darkness falls and we're back on the frog-hunt. These guys are territorial so when one is found, the spot is marked with a bright orange ribbon so the frog can be returned to the same place. We find eight or so of these monstrous frogs along the creek edge and Michael weighs, measures, tags, and swabs the inner back leg of each before it's quickly returned 'home'.
When the frogs are all returned and the gear packed up, we bundle back into the 4WDs to head back to camp, spotlighting as we go. The kids have all scrambled for the front two cars – excellent, I get the last spotlight! So with my backside balanced precariously on the window ledge and holding the inside grab rail, I start scanning treetops for signs of movement as Ross drives off. It's cold as hell, my butt is sore and there's not much movement in the treetops, but I'm instantly transported back to my childhood and grinning like a Cheshire cat!
I felt a twang of disappointment as I packed up my tent the next morning – I was just starting to get into the swing of things then it was time to go home. Michael and his team were wonderfully helpful and their enthusiasm was truly contagious. The weekend was a fantastic introduction to the field, a taste of what a longer expedition might be like, without the need for longer time commitment. Will I be applying for the fellowship again this year? For sure!
Join Dr Michael Mahony on Australia's Vanishing Frogs (weekend or week-long teams available) and help survey Australian frogs and their habitats, finding clues to the amphibians' worldwide decline.