Friday, December 6, 2013

Red Fox Research at the Otways

After visiting Melbourne Zoo, Megan got in touch with a zoo reproductive biologist by the name of Marissa to see if there were more opportunities for me. Marissa responded with with a short list of PhD students needing volunteers to help with their research projects on local wildlife. The first name on the list was Bron. (That is short for Bronwyn, and it's not an uncommon girls name here apparently.) Bron, along with fellow PHD student Ray, was studying the effects of fire on predator movement. She said that studies on small mammal populations decreasing after fires often suggested that fires caused less forest understory, increasing predation. She concentrated specifically on the invasive red fox. To be honest, there aren't all that many predators around here to choose from. (Side note: Turns out that red fox are originally from Europe and are not truly endemic to the US either.)

I sent an email to Bron stating my interest in assisting with the project and soon recieved a response giving details of her next trip. The first few days of the trip fell on Thanksgiving. I had already agreed to volunteer with processing more microbats Thanksgiving afternoon, and I had plans to go to an American Thanksgiving potluck. Instead of helping with the fox research, I stayed and participated in what was already planned. I will tell more about the bat research in a later blog entry. The potluck, however, was wonderful. Many people showed up and it was amazing to understand what everyone was saying as they were saying it. I'm getting better with Australian lingo, but it still takes effort and memorization. For example, "You can put the eskie in the ute tray." means "You can put the cooler in the truck bed." The food wasn't anywhere near the same as I'm used to, but it was a good attempt. There were many substitutes like turkey legs and chicken when nobody could find a full turkey. I'm glad I stayed. 

After Thanksgiving, I emailed Bron and let her know that I was now free to come help if she still needed it. She had me fill out a quick volunteer form and then sent me a list of items to bring and information for the train I needed to be on. This was the list I was given.

Though I wasn't very familiar with the terms jumper, gaiters, beanie, torch, or bathers, they were all simple enough to figure out. The trouble was finding them! If you'll remember, I didn't come to Australia with very much stuff. While I love my clothes, I don't care one bit if they get dirty. That's what washing machines are for. Field clothes and indoor clothes- check. I already had an extra set of sheets, a pillow, a towel, toiletries, water, books, and a bathing suit. Those were all check. My train was supposed to leave downtown at 4pm, so I spent the morning shopping for the items I didn't have. I tried K-Mart first. None of their boots fit me, adult ones were too big and kids ones were too small. I searched the store, but there were no raincoats. I ended up leaving with just a sleeping bag. My search continued in all the main shopping areas I could think of, but I couldn't find any waterproof clothes or any comfortable boots. At the last minute, I went into a small shop to buy a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. My toms would have to work for shoes. At least they were comfortable. And I'm not too prideful to wear a garbage bag if it keeps me dry. The flashlight and warm hat were low priority and got skipped. 

The train station I was to go to was Birregurra. My pronunciation of the town was way off, so I wrote it on my iPhone notepad. That way, whenever I needed to tell someone where I was going, I could just show them the town name instead of having to repeat incorrect variations of the word until they understood what I was trying to say. Upon arriving to the station, I immediately went to the customer service desk to ask what to do. The man looked at me with confusion for a moment and then told me that I was at the wrong desk, to go to the one downstairs. The downstairs desk was for V-line, a greater Victoria transit system. The lady at the desk asked me if I had a reservation. I explained that I didn't think so, but had no idea what I was doing. I just needed to go to this *pointed to iphone* station and I was to leave at 4pm. She assisted me in buying the ticket and directed me to my platform. The train's schedule had been slightly altered. I was to take the train to Geelong, and then a coach bus to Birregurra. My arrival time was virtually the same. The train had soft, cushy, blue velvet seats in which I struggled to stay awake. The train was to go much farther than my destination. Falling asleep could mean the difference between fox tracking and desert wandering. Thankfully, I managed to make my way to the bus and to my destination. Bron picked me up near the bus stop and we grabbed some pizza and coke on the way out of town. (PS-Pineapple does not belong on pizza. Fried eggs, maybe. Pineapple, no.)

Bron explained that my timing was perfect. Her last volunteer had to leave that same day. It was just me and her until Ray would arrive sometime in the next couple days. Most of the work required two people. She let me borrow an extra pair of her shoes for setting traps so there wouldn't be as many human smells tracked around the area. We drove through the woods, exiting the truck every few minutes to check traps. Bron taught me how to mark and find the traps using her GPS and then put me in charge of doing that for all of them. It took Bron pointing out several for me to learn what they looked like. Fox tend to use human made paths to move around, usually roads and hiking trails. Flat, humane foothold traps were placed along trails, not far from roads. They were well hidden, with the only identifiable feature being an oddly smooth circle of dirt. Signs along the trail warned hikers of the traps and told of the study being conducted. None of the traps had been triggered, and Bron let me know that it is common to only catch one or two in a ten day period. Fox are smart and won't go in live box traps at all. This was the most reliable way to catch them, but it still wasn't easy.

We returned to the house and made a large pot of chicken soup for the next few days. Bron spent the remainer of the evening going through radio collars, programming frequencies. I ate and went to bed. We each had our own room with a single mattress. It looked nearly identical to my bedroom at Moonee Ponds- empty. It was very difficult to fall asleep. The house was right on the edge of the woods, so we were surrounded by wildlife. My room buzzed with mosquitoes and flies. Outside, I could hear possum calls, sounding like a mix between a cat hiss and a man breathing deeply, with the occational sound of a kookaburra's cackling laughter.

^ the back yard ^

The second day my alarm went off at 6:00am. Soon after, Ray arrived. He was tall with a thick beard. As we left the house we saw a flock of nearly twenty sulphur-crested cockatoos (the white and yellow ones) along the edge of the woods. We all went to check the traps, and then began plotting where new ones should be set. The set up process is more involved than I expected. To begin, you have to pick a trap and test the amount of pressure needed to make it go off. Sounds easy. The trap is a clamp with rings on either side keeping it closed. These rings are very tight. The easiest way to open the trap is to step on either ring and pry it open with your hands, locking it into an open position. We all wore gloves to keep away human smells. It takes balance to step on both rings. I didn't fall, but there were a few close calls. At one point, I tried to just do it all using my hands. I admitted their way was better after both gloves became stuck in the trap and I had to be pried out. Not my best moment.  Afterwards, they informed me that twice before people on this trip had gotten leaches stuck on their eyes while setting trap. Yes, you read that right. Leaches. On your eye! Apparently leaches are pretty common here and when the trap goes off, it flicks any leaches on it into the face. They reassured me that the leaches would fall off after a half hour or so. I decided to wear sunglasses for setting traps from then on.

Side note- while writing this entry at the park across the street, a giant spider tried to attack me. I calmly escaped without alarming any children. Personal success! (Spiders are scarier in Australia.) Speaking of spiders, this is one that I found on the truck door!

Scary looking, right?!

After setting the traps, making them go off to test weight, setting them, testing weight again, and then finally setting them a third time, they could be planted to catch fox. First, I had to dig a large hole. At the back end of the hole, I had to use a pole and hammer to dig a skinny, deep hole to put bait in. The trap was placed in the large hole, and gently packed over with dirt repeatedly until it couldn't be seen. We had two types of bait, sausage (called snag?) and road kill rabbit. They reeked. We spread their juices around the area and stuffed pieces down the long hole. The flies were already swarming us, but now they were really swarming. The flies here are the kind that fly around your face and only become more persistent when you swat at them. Before finishing, we blocked the sides of the traps so macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) wouldn't accidentally hop on them. We camouflaged the area as best as possible, put up signs, and left. I don't know how many we set, but it took several hours. 

^ This is the type of area we put most of the traps. ^

Ray stayed to set more traps further in the woods while Bron and I went to track down previously caught fox. Once fox were caught, radio collars were put on them. These collars cost the researchers thousands of dollars. Once the foxes were released, the collars monitored where they went, and eventually, their overall territory, which could later be compared to forest burnings. Bron had a large homemade antenna to pick up the collars' signals. She drove the car while I held on to the atenna through the car window. We did this so many times that by the end of the trip my left hand was swollen and red. (Remember, passengers are on the left side.) The antenna was connected to a device that was tuned to the specific individual fox collar we were looking for. As we drove, we listened for a subtle beep amid never ending white noise. That evening we found one fox. We exited the truck as soon as the beep sounded, grabbed a smaller antenna, and headed into the woods. Occasionally, we would lose the signal again and have to jump back into the truck. This time however, we continued on the signal until it was close enough to pick up with the smallest antenna. This antenna connected to the laptop computer we brought with us. I stood at the highest point until it picked up the signal, taking approximately two minutes. The information needed was downloaded through that antenna and into the computer. After everything was saved, we headed back out to find more fox. 

There were macropods everywhere! The forest was thick, so you didn't see them until they were close. Like deer, as soon as they saw you move, they were gone! There were three species within the woods: grey kangaroo, red necked wallaby, and swamp wallaby. The swamp wallaby was they only one I could easily identify since it was jet black. I could always anticipate a macropod approaching by the sound of giant footsteps. Thump, thump, thump, thump, wallaby! In the morning we would occasionally see some outside bouncing around in the yard. They remind me so much of the character Tigger.

The next day we spent the better part of the light, driving around listening for a beep. Waking up at 6am and then listening to white noise for hours on end makes staying awake the hardest thing in the world! I'm sure Bron heard me snore a few times, but I always snapped back awake. We took all our breaks. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the house, but morning and afternoon teas were always in the woods. Bron and Ray were comfortable peeing in the woods. I was happy to hold my bladder until meal times. 

While driving in the afternoon, Brom suddenly stopped the car and informed me that there was a lizard in the middle of the road. We got out of the car. I was obviously a touch more excited about this interruption than she was. It was a blue-tongued skink. We moved him out of the road, with a super quick photo op, and continued our white noise listening.

Now, I'm not remembering this all in the correct order because my shirts are different in the pictures, but it doesn't much matter. It all blurred together anyway. One of the afternoons, Bron was running low on fuel and needed to grab some more groceries. While she was going to the "petrol station and supa" she suggested I visit the beach. Oh, was that a welcome suggestion! The beach was beautiful, tied with Puerto Rico for best beach I've ever seen. I left my shoes in the grass and spent every moment with my feet in the warm ocean water. This was also one of the only places I had found which had cell phone reception. I used all my time to contact family and let them know that I was still alive. (Okay, I might've sent a few pictures of the beach to my dear loved ones in the coldest part of the country, you know, to help them feel a bit warmer. Hehe!) 

On the last evening, we still had not tracked down one specific collared fox. This fox had been caught just over a week previously, but hadn't been found since, Bron and Ray decided that Bron and I should walk over 10 miles down an abandoned road to see if she was there. Ray would stay behind and set more traps. So that is what we did. Thankfully, there were many beautiful animals to keep me going along. There were birds everywhere. Cockatoos screeched so loudly it made me wonder why anyone would want them as pets! Gang-Gangs and Galahs flew by, both parrots with greyish bodies and dull red heads. The Crimson Rosella was by for the most noticeable. They were everywhere and so colorful that they were impossible to miss. As juveniles, they are bright green and yellow. As they age, they slowly turn bright red and blue. During the transformation, they are just a blinding rainbow of color! 

At approximately the halfway point we spotted a koala running through the woods toward a tree. Yes, it was on the ground running, in a funny koala sort of way. As it reached the tree it began calling out with the most unexpected voice. I kid you not; this koala had the voice of a lion! It quickly climbed halfway up the tree and continued its call. I mentioned in my last blog about how koalas are more agile than I expected. Well, they continue to surprise me!

Little observation: most of the trees here look like they are sanded down. There is hardly any noticeable bark in the woods. There are times when I think I'm looking at bark, but it turns out to be something growing on the tree instead.

We continued walking and I swear it was up hill almost the entire rest of the walk. My butt muscles have only hurt worse when I went roller skating in a concrete ring. It was still fun. At one point we reached a very pretty fresh water area with a creek and Bron took my picture with the antenna we were using to track the fox. She mentioned that there might be a platypus around there, but we couldn't find it. Later I wondered if there also could have been crocodiles. Note to self: research where crocodiles live more thoroughly! 

^ This is me after hiking for over three hours. ^

We did not find the signal of a single fox the whole hike. On the way back to the house we did see three foxes run by the truck. None of them had radio collars, and they disappeared into the woods quickly. By the time we got back, I couldn't wait to take a shower. I had been dreading it, but I no longer cared. You see, this house has a creepy shower. How so? Well, there this one way mirror. To the person in the shower, there is a mirror. For someone in the dining room, there is a window looking straight into the shower. Why anyone would build it that way, I don't know. Thankfully, they had a paper curtain on the window side, with a dry erase board propped over it. Ray wasn't home yet, and Bron was on the front porch looking at data, so I took the speediest shower ever. Come to think of it, there were signs all over the house about water conservation. Maybe the builder thought "Let's make a creepy one way mirrored shower so nobody will waste extra time in there!"

The next day, Bron was more determined than ever to find the missing fox. She decided we needed to hike into thicker parts of the woods which had not been burned for many years. These were areas covered in fern trees. These ferns ranged from five to ten feet tall. Now, see the fern closest to me in the picture above? Notice how the fronds (leaves) decay on the bottom and new fronds grow from the top. This is the same for the fern trees, but there are hundreds of them snuggled tightly together. I would think that I was walking on solid ground and then realize that I was actually walking on three feet of decaying fern fronds! It was nearly impossible to tell. Everything was so thick that a lot of attention had to be given to not falling. It rained a little, making everything slippery, but the rain was welcome to help cool off. Once again, we couldn't find the fox. Hopefully they will track her down soon. They can't study her movements otherwise. Bron and Ray were both certain that it was just a matter of looking for her in the wrong places.

By the end of my time there, I still had not caught a fox, but I did learn a lot about the animals, how to set traps, how to use a wide variety of tracking equipment, and that I am severely out of shape. In addition, I left with three mosquitoes bites on the palm of my hand, along with everywhere else on my body, but no leaches! I'm so happy I went, but I'm not quite sure I'd do it again. I don't believe a PhD in field work is in my future. That peeing outside thing just isn't for me. 

Bron called the train station and made a reservation for me. She said I could just pay on the train for my ticket. Once I got on the train, a man approached for ticket money. I asked if he would take my American visa card. He said no. Australian visa card? No. Check? No. Myki? No. American dollars? No. The only currency I didn't have on me was the only one he accepted. He was very nice though and said he'd go talk to the conductor and figure something out for me. He never returned. It was around a two hour trip. He had plenty of time to come back, but he didn't. I got off the train that should've cost me quite a bit without paying a thing. I felt like a criminal! Thankfully, I made it home without being hunted down by the police. 

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