Part of the DPaW (Department of Parks and Wildlife, previously CALM) charter is community involvement. One aspect of that is to take volunteers on Department project field trips - working trips - to assist with various monitoring activities.
And so it was that I found myself volunteering for a one week trip to the Fitzgerald River National Park
for a wildlife survey, including listening for Western Ground Parrots.
Leaving Albany at 7am on Monday morning, we headed in convoy along South Coast Highway to Jerramungup and then a bit further east of there to the access road taking us into the central part of this huge national park. How huge is it? Just a bit shy of 1 million acres. From personal experience, many years ago, it takes a week to walk from end to end along the coast.
Once we left the highway, we drove for about half an hour on unsealed public roads to a gated track, then another half an hour along the DPaW access track to the campsite. I have to say, the logistics of the whole exercise was impressive. Not just for the great organisation, but the minimal impact policy that DePAW follows is a tribute to the caring dedication of its field officers. Ten people camped for a week - in reasonable comfort - and once we had packed to leave, you would have to look pretty hard to tell we were ever there.
Bird surveys are done at dawn and dusk. Or to be precise, starting one hour before dawn and from sunset to one hour after. This covers the morning and evening 'chorus', the cacophony when everything calls to everything else.
The way it works is this; at about 4am we wake up and head off, GPS in hand to our assigned position. Each person is placed at a point on a grid 400m apart. The grid typically starts 400m from the edge of the access track, to 1.2km in for the deepest point. Since it can take 30-40 minutes to trek to the grid point (still in the dark at this point), it means starting 2 hours before dawn to get to the point 1 hour before.
Once at the assigned point it is time to find a spot to stand where not too many Kangaroo ticks will find breakfast, get out the clip board, and wait for the dawn chorus to start. On the way to the drop-off points in the 4WD, we have been listening to Ground Parrot calls on CD, so we have the sound fresh in our heads.
All calls of note are recorded on running sheets, with precise times, direction, conditions and of course, location. Then, at sunrise, chorus over, we trek back to the track for pickup, back to the base camp, and breakfast.
During the day there are a number of other monitoring tasks to do, which include checking and resetting small animal traps and remote unit monitoring placement and pickup. Generally there is a bit of downtime after lunch, or an excursion to some place interesting. Then around is an early dinner before heading out to the same spot on the survey grid to arrive at sunset and listen for one hour and the evening chorus.
Finally for the day, we head back to the track in the dark, and then to camp to compare notes, finish the paperwork, a cuppa and, because we have been good, a chocolate biscuit. Then off to our tents for the night and a good six hours sleep before the next 3am start.
It has been 5 years since the last Western Ground Parrot call has been confirmed in the 'Fitz'. The consensus is that they are most likely extinct there now, leaving the only remaining population in the Cape Arid National Park. The purpose of this field trip was to visit locations where populations had been known to exist, to see if any had returned. Also, we placed several dozen remote listening units that will stay in the field for three months, to detect calls in other locations.
Sadly, our survey came up empty on this trip. Adding weight to the extinction possibility for this area. Also adding further critical need to the action required to secure the survival of the, very possibly, last remaining population of this species at Cape Arid.
Some notes on the 'Fitz':
My first foray into this area was on a Year 11 high school camp. We hiked from the west side to the east side of the park, taking six days in total as I recall. Our hiking song for the trip, sung to the tune of 'Land of Hope and Glory' went 'Land of rocks and blisters, land of gullies deep...' and 'harder still and harder, does the south wind blow, tent pegs fly like hail stones, will it bloody snow?'
The song, amusing to us at the time, did little justice to the raw beauty of this near pristine and unique environment.
Now, having both a greater appreciation and more well developed aesthetic sense for nature, it was easy to be lost in the moment, watching dawn's rosy fingers spread over East Mount Barren, bringing to life the vivid red, pink, blue and yellow wildflowers in bloom, and the morning chorus in full song.