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Entry #19 - Koala placement - Australia, where else?

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Entry # 19 - Australia Diary – May 9 – July 13 – First Week

Tuesday, May 9 – Auckland – Sydney – Brisbane – Mackay

I just re-read my NZ blog. I used LOVELY a lot. Isn’t that Lovely? I took most of them out!

As I was leaving NZ, I had to be up at 5 for 5:50 pick up. Woke Bette to give her a good-bye hug and off I went. I was sorry to leave NZ, but I was very much looking forward to Australia and getting to see the animals. Both bags weighed 27 kg. (Not bad!) I had a Qantas flight to Sydney with two seats all to myself. The movie was Match Point, which I had not really expected to watch, but once I was in it, I could not stop until the end. A sad movie I found. I had no problems in customs because I took Annie’s advice and went into the something to claim aisle. I always say that I have candy and that I have just been hiking and I get ready to hand over my shoes. I also showed them my raw almonds from NZ and they did not let me keep them. No problem.

I knew that I would have a 6-hour wait in Sydney until I got on my connections to Brisbane and finally Mackay. The best thing about my new airline, Virgin Blue (VB) is that they accepted my luggage immediately! YAAAH! Another bonus was that VB had a special offer going where you could access their lounge for $5 for a day pass. The best $5 I spent all day.

I had changed the last of my NZ$ into Aust $, but I figured I would need some more. I was a little taken a back when the ATM had said that I was already at my daily limit. I hadn’t taken any out that day, but I had done a withdrawal the night before to give Bette money for my packages back to the States. I went off to have a sit and a think about my options and to do some computer work. During my sit, which also involved eating all the candy in my backpack, I had two plans of attack – I had US$ cash I could exchange until I could get to a bank in Mackay and I also had traveler’s checks I could cash. As I sat there longer, I realized that maybe I had asked for too much, and by asking for a lower amount, I would be successful. That was the case, so I felt a little better with some more money in my pocket for cab fare in Mackay and lunch in Sydney. YAAAH! Sitting and thinking and not panicking does work!

Virgin Blue is very similar to the old People’s Express flights – the food on the flight was concessions. Not a bad way to go and they did have quite a nice selection of snacks, as both my flights were less than 2 hours each. On my flight between Sydney and Brisbane, I did have a window seat, but there was no window next to me. No problem, I read.

When I landed in Brisbane, I only had 30 minutes to make my flight, but I only had to walk one gate down, No worries! On my flight from Brisbane to Mackay, I again had a row of seats to myself and I was pretty tired by this point of my day. We landed in Mackay and I was trying to do the math of when was the last time I had stood on Australian soil. I figured it was right around 35 years, as I celebrated my 12th birthday in Australia.


By the time, my bags arrived, all the taxis had left the taxi stand, but there was a phone to call for one. Some people had not called and just waited until the next one came back, but each cab that arrived was looking for a specific person. My cab driver was Andy and he was very nice. He told me about his other jobs including selling lots of things on EBAY. He told me his favorite store in Mackay was relocating and was having a huge stock reduction sale. As I needed a few things, I decided to go the next day.

I made it to the Pioneer Village Motel (Mackay is next to the Pioneer River) and my room was #12. As I walked to it the room numbers read 11, 12, 12A, 14, 15. Hmmmmm! I arrived around 9:30 and found I was in a very residential area. The only thing open was a KFC. The chicken wrap wasn’t too bad! GOOD NIGHT!

room numbers.JPG

Wednesday, May 10 – Mackay

I slept in late, or at least it felt that way due to the time change. I called a friend to wish a happy birthday and it is always fun to connect with someone at home and tell them how the trip is going.

I found I did need a few things for the trip to St. Bee’s, such as a belt, a different hat, sneakers or reef shoes and bug spray, so I decided I would follow Andy’s suggestion. As I started out, with my map of Mackay, I came across houses with an interesting architecture. I learned later that they were called Queenslander’s. With their elevation and the large, covered porch that goes all the way around the house, they are much cooler than the traditional houses would be. I keep forgetting how very hot most of Australia can be for most of the year. I am sure I will get a good feel for it, even though, I am technically here during the fall and going into winter.


The store that Andy mentioned was a thrift store, and while most of the inventory was gone, I went it to see what I could find. No shoes or hats that would work, but I did find a lightweight shirt ($1.00). By the window there was a large bin with belts. I had to go through practically the entire bin in order to find a belt large enough and without decorator flourishes. All the while I was at the window with the belt bin, there was a dragonfly that kept fighting to get out, but wasn’t making it. It appeared to be tiring, so I managed to get him onto a purse and out the door. I asked Francis to please remind him that he is better outside than inside.

Mackay is a small town with a river on the south side and a harbor that faces the Tasman Sea. It is very flat here and appeared pretty tropical. I heard lots of birds that I could not see and walked about 15 minutes into town. The downtown is about a 4 X 4 block grid of shops and restaurants, banks, etc. I found an ATM and managed a larger withdrawal. Also on my ramble, I found a New Age Store and was lured in my their wonderful incense. I looked through their books and did not find any by Sonia. They had several sets of her cards though, and when I asked the shop owner, she indicated that she had a hard time keeping the books in stock. She had gone to a seminar where Sonia was one of 5 different speakers and was very drawn to her and her energy. I bought some lovely Bergamot oil (ground and elevate mood) and a book.

I treated myself to lunch at a gourmet shop that also caters and had a delicious chicken wrap and Camembert and a Greek salad. As I exited lunch, I decided to walk home and stop by the art gallery and see if any of the Earthwatch people had arrived yet. On my walk, I saw my first Aussie man in shorts, knee socks and leather shoes. They do still exist.

As I continued to walk, I saw a lady on the street corner and asked directions. Her name was Kaye and we spent an absolutely lovely 40 minutes together. She was from Sydney and was in Mackay to play with the new grandbaby. She was searching for a shop that had calendars and I followed her. Within 5 minutes of meeting, she had given me her business card and suggested that I call her when I arrive back to Sydney. Confirmation that reaching out and asking for assistance leads you to the nicest people.

I stopped by the art gallery, but by that time, I was pooped and wanted a little rest before I hoped to meet Karin (an EW volunteer) for dinner. I had left a note for Karin when she checked in and I had a note under my door when I arrived back. She had planned to meet two of the other volunteers for dinner in 20 minutes. So, I went to meet her, checked my laundry that was on the clothesline and washed my face. Out the door and down the street I walked with Karin (from Germany) and Digby (from Perth) back to town for dinner. We were supposed to call Damien (from England) to join us for dinner, but the cell phone wasn’t working. So I took out my newly acquired Aussie phone card and we found a phone booth.

Photo – Jane and Digby calling Damien

I made contact with Damien, but I was having a hard time understanding him, so I handed the phone to Digby. Damien was staying at a place across the river and was going to catch a cab and meet us. They said he had no hair so that I should be able to find him. Karin admitted that she had difficulty understanding Damien.

When we finally met Damien, I learned that he was from Liverpool, so the difficulty in comprehension was explained. (I am not sure if Damien changed how he spoke during the trip, but we all began to understand him generally much better within three –four days.) Damien is great fun, has a very dry sense of humor, and was a stitch when describing the rustic nature of his accommodations. “Do you want bedclothes? That will be an extra $5!”.

This is the first Earthwatch trip for each of them and all of them are being sponsored by their work. I am the only one paying my own way for this experience. After dinner, Digby and Karin wanted to stop by a bottle store and pick up beer for the two weeks. Meals were going to be included, but alcohol was on our own.

Between the three of them, we ended up buying 8 cases of beer and Damien took 2 with him, Digby carried 4 in a box and Karin and I both carried one back to our rooms. Digby was right across the street for us and we had planned to share a taxi to the marina at 8:00 the next morning.

Home to pack. I was so sleepy, I decided to get up early and do it. Maybe not the best decision I could have made.

Thursday, May 11 – EW on St. Bee’s Island

Unbeknownst to us, we had another volunteer staying at the Pioneer Villa Motel – Chris from New York, a journalist for a kid’s science magazine. When the taxi arrived, Karin, Digby, Chris and I with luggage, food bag from me, and 8 cases of beer stuffed into one taxi and went off to the marina.

At the marina, we met the two researchers and the rest of the team. Bill Ellis – Aust (Brisbane) is the primary investigator and Sean Fitzgibbon – Aust (Brisbane) his assistant for most of the trip. Bill is usually pretty quiet, has a lovely, calm energy and is very good with the volunteers. Sean has just gotten a job at the university, also has a lovely calm energy and is very patient. The rest of the team members are Tashina (Bangladesh), Cynch (Philippines), and Antonio (Aust – Adelaide). This is my first volunteer team where there are an equal number of men to women and out of 8, only 2 from the US.

We are team one of four for 2006 and Bill has been working on the island since 1998. They are publishing data from the research and expects to be gathering data for at least another 5 years. The other trips are in July (Winter), Oct (Spring) and Jan (Summer). If I come back, it will be in July, much better weather and fun things to see. More on this later.

We had to take off our shoes before we loaded on the boat, and in addition to our luggage and all the beer, we had to take all the equipment we would need and all of our food for two weeks that was delivered by the grocery store. We had a 60-minute boat ride to St. Bee’s Island, which is next to Keswick Island, on medium seas, and several people had turned green by the end. Only one person spoke to the fishes at the end of the trip, Bill our PI. He was very professional and cute about it, apologized to the group and then turned and hurled over the side of the boat. In all of his trips, this was his first bought of seasickness. We landed in Homestead Bay and had to ferry people to the beach to be the landing team. We were ferried to shore by Peter (a double leg amputee) who has been on the island for 30 years. As we arrived on shore, we also met George (Peter’s female Dalmatian) who was friendly enough but not overly so. Tashina is very afraid of dogs, so of course, George always ran up to greet her.

Arrival at St.JPG

It took about 5 trips to get everything unloaded from the boat. It was unloaded from the boat on to the beach, and while they went back for another load, we hauled the food up to the South House. We left the luggage and equipment on the shore until we knew who was staying in which house.

Once all was unloaded, Sean and the ladies organized the pantry and divided all the perishables into individual boxes, one of each day of our stay. These boxes were then transported to the cold room, which was located closer to the North House. In addition, Karin and I took all the dry food and unloaded it into the pantry. The rest of the team transported all the equipment up to the North House and began getting supplies ready for our trips up the hill.

Kitchen duty and kitchen assistant was allocated on a rotating basis for meal preparation. The main kitchen person for the day would monitor the radio, sweep out the house, prepare breakfast, lay out lunch supplies for preparation when the team would go into the field and cook dinner. This would give each of us basically a light day where we could rest a bit. Menus were provided for those of the team that were uncomfortable in the kitchen and generally with the kitchen helper, one of the team had some experience. Based on what I saw unloaded and what Karin and I handled, we will have more than enough food and it will be good food.

kitchen crew.JPG

The menu sheet showed meal and snacks for the entire time. Breakfast was between 6-8 am, lunch was packed by each individual and included sandwiches, fruit, gorp, cookies and sometimes cut up veggies and left overs. We were usually supposed to be back around 4pm and there would be cheese and crackers and then dinner around 6pm.

Bill and Sean handled cooking the first night and we all chose the days that we wanted to cook, based on what the menu of the day. As we had 12 days and only 8 of us, Bill would assign some of us to more than one day.

There are two main houses for the team to use for sleeping - South House and Kitchen –that is the main social area, sleeps 10 and has only one bathroom. The boys took that house. The North house – sleeps 9 and has two bathrooms. My room has two twin beds, a lovely view of the Homestead bay, Karin has the double bed and the door into our shared bathroom, Tashina and Cynch are in the quad room with their own bathrooms. Yah, a room to myself. Think of the Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Caruso but with flush toilets, warm showers with low water pressure and gas oven cooking. We have two strengths and intensity of power, 120 and 240. The 120 power cells are photocells and if we are careless and leave on lights, we may not have that power source until the sun shines again. From 4 until 10 every night, we have a generator that gives us 240 power. Water is also a limited commodity and we are encouraged to use restraint in flushing the toilets and the length of our showers. Because we are a small team, it may not be that bad. When we do dishes, we are encouraged to file basins for soap and rinsing.

After we settled in and a brief lunch, we went for a little walk to see the knoll and we saw two koalas. They are as cute as they claim. Our first one was very clear to see and kept giving us great shots. The second was very shy and very hard to see. During our trip we learned about several species of trees that we would need to know for our data collection, what the termites look like, not to touch the caterpillars or cacti and how to avoid the green ant nests. If we find ourselves covered in green ants, we are to remove our clothes, literally. I asked first thing if there was anything similar to poison ivy on the island and was told no. At least I can push leaves and vines out of the way without fear.

From Bill, we learned that koalas have great arm muscles to hold on to their trees, but they do not have the capacity to push off. They also have very sharp claws and toes. Their back legs are also able to reach all parts of their bodies, but when subdued, they tend to roll into a ball.

We are in the tropics, and although it is fall, the mosquitoes are still around. So, with the help of Digby, I installed my mosquito netting. There were lots of unfamiliar noises as I went to sleep and my window will stay permanently open to capture as much of the lovely breeze as possible.

Mossie net.JPG

It looks to be very much fun, a little rustic, but with interesting people and lots of good food.

Friday, May 12 – St. Bee’s

Lots of wind and intermittent rain during the nights and banging doors and equipment that we did not nail down.

Breakfast was a little light as we did not have any bread, but more was being delivered by plane to the next island and ferried over by Peter.

I realized when I arrived that I only had my hiking boots with me. This would be very uncomfortable for me, as I would not have any shoes to change into as a break. Luckily, Karin had a spare set of sandals that I borrowed and my feet really appreciated it.

The morning was spent watching the video on capture techniques and learning how to use the reporting forms, GPS and PDA as alternative data capturing devises. We also learned to use the tracking equipment and how to measure the height of the trees. Bill hide transmitter collars in trees around the North house and two teams with receivers and hand-held antennas would go up and down the beach trying to triangulate and find the collar. It normally took 2-3 readings before we found it, which is good.

Lunch was quick and then we divided into two teams and set out to track at least 4 koala’s each. My team was lead by Sean and included Digby, Karin, Chris and I.

If you see a koala that is not the one that you are tracking, they come in two categories; clean skin or unassisted. A clean skin is when a koala does not have a collar or any ear tags. This is an animal that has never been captured. Unassisted means it is an animal that has been caught at some time and you can tell by the ear tags or collar who they are, but you found them without the assistance of the radio tracking equipment.

Once we spot a Koala there are several things to do.
If it tagged, collared and in a tree that already has an ID Tag – fill in the short form with date, name of animal, time, animals location in the tree, activity level, exposure to sun and posture. You also use the PDA and do a full set of records on the sighting.
If tagged and collared and not in a tagged tree – major data collection. GPS of Tree, type of tree, height of tree, height and specifics on 4 neighboring trees. PDA all collected info.

Our first Koala spotted by Karin was Honey. She was right up in the canopy and very easy to see.


Number 2 was Stud, spotted by Chris, who we were able to spot when we stood on a rocky outcrop and looked directly across from the rock to the exact top of his tree.

Number 3 was Cameron finally spotted by Karin – who gave us fits – Also in a non-tagged tree, we got our first try at all of our equipment. I found it amusing that as soon as we found a koala, after verifying we had the correct one, we would essentially ignore it and scurry around collecting data. I tried as much as possible to say hello and goodbye to each koala and to thank them for their involvement in our team experience and also the data that Bill is collecting. They sure are wonderful.

Number 4 was Olivia – who also gave us even more fits – very high, very dense leaves and Sean was the one who found her. She could not have been higher in the tree or better concealed. At this point of the day, I was getting hot and a little cranky. I was plugged in because I could not see them quickly enough and in order to see Olivia, I was standing on a steep hill with no footing and looking directly into the sun. I was not at my calm and most balanced best at this point of the day.

During this day we also saw Swamp Wallabies, rust and black faces and rather tame. Also a Sea Eagle that was huge and the ubiquitous wild goats. Apparently, Captain Cook and his crews would leave small numbers of goats on these islands in case a ship was wrecked. This way the survivors might have meat as they made repairs to their boats.

Both teams ended up together and on our way out, in a clear stand of trees in beautiful profile was Cyril or Tribble (not sure exact who we had because no neck collar and therefore, no way to conclusively verify). He also was very high in the tree and not way we could get a definite confirmation him.

On the way back, Karin and I participated in an unintended wild goose chase with Damien at the lead as he was trying to show us Abby. When Damien’s group had found her, Abby was only 2 meters up in a tree and close to the dump that was close to home. Abbey had moved on by the time we got there, and I realized, I was tired, hungry, cranky and not able to work the antenna very well. Not my most powerful position to be in.

It was lovely to be home for a warm shower and clean clothes, and after that, I felt much better.

Saturday, May 13 – St. Bee’s – First full day in the field

Digby on kitchen duty today and a lovely spread prepared for us to make our lunches.
Group Meeting at 8:30 and a change of team configuration with everyone assigned to specific tasks. I was with Sean, as leader, Chris, Damien and Tashina today. Damien started off at tracker and Tashina on PDA. Chris and my first function would be to help with the nearest neighbor data collection if required, koala look out at all other times, and eventually to be trained on all the other functions including the PDA and tracking.

Team at tramp.JPG

Our list of Koala’s to find was very similar to yesterday – Honey, Stud, Cameron, Olivia, Tea and possibly Abby, Elizabeth, Gizmo, Yoshi.

Our route was also very similar to yesterday. Goat highway to the knoll and climb up. First we found Abbey spotted by Chris and in a tagged tree. She was easy to see, once it had been pointed out, but she was a little wary of us and began to move higher on the branch. After PDA training, up we went to find Stud. Stud was located in a very similar tree in that is was right at the top and was almost totally obscured by another tree. Very Shy. Sean spotted him and again, another tagged tree. Our team felt very smug, two koala’s within one hour. A short break up on the ridge and we looked for the clean skin we had seen for the last two days. Luckily, he or she had moved off. I would have been concerned had it been in the same tree again. I had asked Bill if he was planning to catch him and tag him, and he said at this point, his main effort would be to capture the already collared animals to change batteries or up grade collars.

Chris took over tracking and we headed down the ridge into the valley on the backside of the knoll and I had another slide down the hill on my left buttock. Ouch! Very steep and the last nights rain had made it slicker. Sean located Cameron again and he was only two trees away from where he was yesterday. His tree was not tagged so we all went into motion to collect the data. Label the tree, measure the girth, determine the species, check on the compass and find the 4 nearest neighbor trees in the four quadrants. Determine their species, height, girth and distance from the KT (Koala Tree). The researchers are trying to see what trees they find the Koala’s using for eating, sleeping and just hanging out. This data will help researchers in other islands who have found some troops that are destroying their habitat or over breeding.

From the tracking devise, Olivia was supposed to be located close to where we found her yesterday. As we headed her way, Sean looked up and spotted another Koala. He turned out to be a clean skin (no collar, no ear tags) that means he has never been caught. He was a very large Koala and he very clearly showed us that he was a male. Sean shimmied up the tree to get a better look at him and to verify that we had not been caught. At this point, we noted that we found him, but did not take any more data.

Back on the hunt for Olivia, we all hoped that she was lower in her tree and a little easier to find. Sean located her almost immediately and luckily lower in the tree, but again, not a tagged tree. The best thing about her situation however, was that two of the 4 nearest neighbor trees were already tagged so that we did not have to do detailed data collection on them. I was on the clinometer (the tool that helps you determine the height of the trees). It took me a while to dial in my eyes and remember how to use it. It didn’t help that I was facing the sun while trying to read the dial with one eye, but we made it through.

We took our lunch break after Olivia and I would be on tracking after lunch as we searched for Tea. Before that I went off to find a pink tree and then off we went with me in the lead. You would think I would like that, but I found it a little daunting especially as I had only done minor tracking the day before on level ground and no interference from gully’s and bounce back from the neighboring hills.

On the backside of the hill, the main goal is for the tracker to stay high and take 2-3 samples in order to triangulate the proper direction. I found I was so focused on finding the signal that I kept loosing my orientation on the hill. After 4 measurements, we were down enough on the hill and getting closer, although the reading was just showing me a wide stretch of trees that she might be in. As I proceeded down the hill, Sean spotted her and we confirmed by the color of her ear tags and me taking two more readings that we had indeed found Tea. Again, not a tagged tree so off we went again. I was on girth measurements and holding the tape for Chris to take the height measurements. We were very close to a dry riverbed and Chris found a tree full of the black and blue butterflies that we had been seeing. He threw a stick and lightly hit the tree and all the butterflies flew up into a flurry of wings. It was lovely.

We were scheduled to meet the other team back at the house with the possibility of more tracking. As we proceeded down the riverbed to the house, the beautiful, blue butterflies accompanied us.

After a short rest and snacks at the house, the other team arrived. It was determined that the two other signals we had been picking up, were just bled over from a Koala that we had already found. So, we were released from duty at 3:00 today. YAAAH!

I went back to my bunk for a short nap, but people were listening to the football on the radio, so I got up and blogged instead.

Digby on dinner duty tonight. I will help with dishes tonight and learn about the layout of the kitchen, as I am on kitchen duty tomorrow, starting with breakfast at 6am.

Sunday, May 14 – St. Bee’s – Second full day in the field and my cooking day

Slept off and on and watched the clock. Heard the gecko squeak above my head. At 4:45 he peed on me through the mosquito net.

Breakfast no problem, thanks to Digby who knew how to work the oven toaster and how to make the coffee. Did I mention we are working on a gas range and stove? I now know how to light the oven and the toaster between the stovetop and the oven. The crew helped to clean up and we were ready at 8:30 to go into the field.

Tracking again, my team of Chris, Karin, Cynch and I with Sean as our shadow. Our list has mostly animals that I had not seen before – Abby, Natasha, Jackaroo, Elizabeth, Yellow. Abby was behind the dump and not too high in the tree.

We got the call that we might be needed to assist in the catch of a koala.

We added Delma today, a researcher who is studying the temperature and how that affects the koalas. There is always a bit of energy shift as new people enter the area.

Bill’s team had Marina in a tree and we tried to get her down, but she ended up going too high for the poles. Then we tried the shaking the tree technique and the tarp, but again, no luck. After 2 tries, Bill lets the animal be until another day.

The teams separated and we went after Natasha and Jackaroo. Chris was tracking and Sean did most of the spotting early in the day.

We were called in to assist in another catch. I carried one of the sacks up the hill that was full of equipment. (I think that each team member should carry their own equipment, because although the bag was not heavy, up a steep hill added lots of weight). This was an adult male that had never been caught and he is now called Digger. He is very handsome and has two yellow ear tags.


Lunch and we split up again and we were after Elizabeth. Chris’s confidence was a little down, but off we went. She was farther away then we thought she would be. On the way, Karin broke her dry spell and spotted two clean skins within 5 minutes of each other. Both not in a position to be caught. We finally located Elizabeth and she was very much in reach so we took a GPS position on her to be able to find her again.

This was the last one I got to see before I went off to cook dinner. I walked across the mud flats to home.

The menu was lasagna – I made a lovely batch of sauce but that only covered the first lasagna, so I quickly had to make more sauce. The burners kept going out and I was concerned that the gas was low. Not a good sign as I had two lasagna’s to cook and garlic toast to make.

Dinner was well received. We decided to move a lot of the extra food out of the very tiny fridge into the cool room.

I seem to be having one major issue a day here. I think I am trying to hard and am feeling a little unworthy as I consider myself such an animal person and I have not been able to spot one yet without assistance. Forcing the issue never solves anything.

Bill gave a presentation after dinner on Koala life cycle.

A koala in brief - 5 digits on the front legs, two thumbs all with claws and very soft palms. Back legs, no claw were the thumb would be, index and middle fingers (monodactyl). Heavy coat that has various colors of light gray. White at chin and on chest at times. Cat like eyes with vertical pupil. Excellent hearing, eyesight and smeller. Pelleted poo. Eats almost exclusively eucalyptus leaves. Most water from leaves.

The female is bred in October, baby is born 40 days later and climbs unassisted from Mom up her belly and into her pouch. The baby attaches to one of her two nipples. Twins are rare. The young stays in the pouch and grows for 6-8 months eats some of her poop to introduce gut bacteria to break down food. Eucalyptus is very toxic and they have special enzymes to break it down in order to digest and absorb the nutrients. After 6 months, the young rides on Mom’s back until she is bred and at that time they are usually weaned. Mom almost never nurses two different aged young at once. They are not a social animal. Come together for breeding and that is it. Once the kid is weaned, they don’t stay.

Posted by ladyjanes 03:25 Archived in Australia

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