desert

Big Desert Adventures: Part Three

Since settlement times, Victoria’s Mallee region has captured the public imagination. Upon digging up old newspaper articles documenting early expeditions to the region, tales of ‘tiger cats’ hell bent on attacking people, and medium-sized marsupials (e.g. bettongs and bandicoots) in apparent plague proportions, are common. Over time, these bush yarns have only enhanced the region’s mystique and reputation as somewhat of a wild frontier. 

Once upon a time quolls and dingoes appeared to rule the Big Desert/Wyperfeld region from the top of the food web. It’s now a slightly different storey, but no less intriguing.  

The third instalment of my Big Desert Adventures blog is being hosted on Euan Ritchie's website. To find out what my camera traps have revealed so far, read on here.


Big Desert Adventures: Part Two

I’ve just returned from my first foray into Victoria’s spectacular Big Desert, and it was every bit as successful as hoped. Currently, there are 35 predator cameras and 35 prey cameras deployed across 35 sites within the Big Desert Wilderness Park, Big Desert State Forest and the Wyperfeld National Park. It really is a beautiful region, hosting a range of ecosystems not seen anywhere else in Victoria.

A picturesque Big Desert sunrise. Photo: William Geary

A picturesque Big Desert sunrise. Photo: William Geary

With any luck, there’ll be a nice array of critters dancing in front of my cameras as you read this. Specifically, at each location I’m targeting Dingoes, Red Foxes and Feral Cats with the predator cameras and a bunch of small mammals (including the Silky Desert Mouse, Mitchells Hopping Mouse and the House Mouse) with the prey cameras. Why these animals though? Well, have a read of my last article describing the background of my project in a little more detail.

You might be wondering what these cameras I’m speaking of look like, so here’s some examples below. The movement of heat (i.e. a body) across a detection zone triggers the cameras, taking video or photos in response. However, that’s where the similarities end; the predator cameras are outward facing, in order to observe larger animals. On the other hand, the prey cameras face downwards as this aids the identification of many small mammal species. Without the help of camera traps, there are quite a few species I wouldn’t even be able to detect, making them an essential tool for any wildlife ecologist. 

The downward facing prey camera, complete with delicious peanut buttery bait. Photo: William Geary. 

The downward facing prey camera, complete with delicious peanut buttery bait. Photo: William Geary. 

The outward facing predator camera in some early successional heathland. Photo: William Geary

The outward facing predator camera in some early successional heathland. Photo: William Geary

In addition, I surveyed for predator scats at each site, collecting nearly 100 samples across nearly 90km worth of transects. Helpfully, Canid and fox scats are generally very easy to spot as they tend to be placed quite prominently in order to mark territory. These will give me another insight into what habitats the local predators are using most. We’ll also be sending the scats off for diet analysis to find out just what’s on the menu in the Big Desert for our furry carnivores.

At our last site we got a true indication of just how merciless fire can be in the mallee (see the photo below). With absolutely nothing left, save for one or two coppicing Eucalypts, one really gets an idea of what the phrase ‘resetting successional trajectory to year zero’ means. Or, in layman’s terms, clearing the ecological slate and starting from scratch. There are very few places in Victoria where succession can be viewed as vividly as in the mallee.

Fire can be absolutely devastating in the Mallee, leaving very little behind. Photo: William Geary

Fire can be absolutely devastating in the Mallee, leaving very little behind. Photo: William Geary

Having traversed a myriad of sandy 4WD tracks, both in the car and on foot, one really gets an appreciation of just how vast and untouched the region is. The sensation of looking out from the top of a dune, with not a single man-made feature in sight is something pretty special. This was compounded at one point with three or four Wedge Tailed Eagles flying overhead whilst gazing off into the distance. Importantly, the Big Desert’s vastness shouldn’t be mistaken for emptiness, with the place absolutely crawling with wildlife.

The vast landscape of the Big Desert. Photo: William Geary

The vast landscape of the Big Desert. Photo: William Geary

Throughout our expedition we managed to happen across a range of reptiles (Mallee Dragons, a Burton’s Legless Lizard & Stumpy Tailed Lizards) as well as the standard mobs of Emus and Western Grey Kangaroos. However, perhaps the most fun aspect was deciphering the origin of the plethora of animal tracks found in the sandy soil. Everything from echidna and dingo to legless lizard and emu tracks were spotted. Following one particular track in the sand resulted in a particularly excellent encounter with a Burton’s Legless Lizard. A definite trip highlight.

Given the recent cold snap, the reptiles will be well and truly hidden away when the time comes for the next Big Desert Adventure. Despite this, I’ll hopefully have some exciting camera trap pictures to share, as well as more photos of the beautiful landscape that is Victoria’s mallee. 

Big Desert Adventures: Part One

The Big Desert Wilderness Area

The Big Desert Wilderness Area

My honours project was never my intended one. In fact, I originally thought I’d be working in a completely different ecosystem and on a different animal. However, upon finding out my new project involved the key words "predators" and "desert", my excitement levels were very nearly maxed out.

Those two words are significant for a couple of reasons. Working on predators was always a goal of mine, but not something I thought I’d be able to do until further into my career. Throughout my undergraduate years, the more charismatic animals, like large predators, seemed reserved only for the ‘rock star’ ecologists as opposed to the lowly honours student.  This seems to be the case especially of late, with Yellowstone National Park’s wolf population getting plenty of publicity, along with Australia’s very own dingo and Tasmanian Devil. The second word, desert, also piqued my interest quite a lot. Having grown up wandering the temperate forests of Far East Gippsland, the opportunity to explore the deserts of Australia has always escaped me. As such, it’s something I was never going to pass up.

One of the Big Desert's many dunes. (Photo: Fred Sannen)

One of the Big Desert's many dunes. (Photo: Fred Sannen)

However, I’m also excited for another reason. Since the first year of my science degree at Monash University, I’ve had an interest in trophic ecology. For those playing at home, trophic ecology is the study of which animals eat what and the wider consequences of those interactions in terms of behaviour, resource cycling and habitat use. It’s an area that’s often deceptively complex, with a new interaction or transfer of resources popping up when you least expect it – something that any ecologist would be used to!

Thus begins my project, investigating how Australia’s top carnivores (the Dingo, Red Fox and Feral Cat) interact with each other and their prey (kangaroos, goats and small mammals). The dingo's ecological role has been the centre of quite the heated debate in recent times, while the effects of foxes and cats in Australia is well documented. I’ll be measuring their habitat use using camera traps and scat surveys across dozens of locations throughout the remote Big Desert Wilderness Park and Wyperfeld National Park.

The Big Desert post-fire. 

The Big Desert post-fire. 

The Big Desert region is an amazingly diverse system, with a plethora of mammals, birds and reptiles to keep me busy in between surveys. The patchy Mallee heathland and dune system presents an environment quite unlike anything else in Victoria, highlighted further by the region’s remoteness. Add to that a complex fire history and the region presents a fantastic opportunity to see how our fauna responds to environmental change.

My first trip is in mid-April for two weeks, allowing plenty of time to get acquainted with an exciting new environment. To follow my progress, I’ll endeavour to post semi-regular tweets with the hash tags #BigDesertAdventures and, of course, #WildMelbourne as my fieldwork happens. Hopefully we’ll be able to track down some carnivorous critters, and I’ll have plenty to share upon return.

Footage from remote cameras in the Big Desert Wilderness Park in north-west Victoria. These cameras detect movement, and shoot footage in 15-second bursts. These 12 clips show some wonderful Australian native fauna, but some introduced species as well. (Video: Euan Ritchie)