April 2016 Field Visit – Narrandera’s Koala Count

Every April the Narrandera Koala Regeneration Committee and the National Parks and Wildlife Service organise Narrandera’s Annual Koala Count. I was told recently that this is one of the longest-running citizen science wildlife monitoring programs in Australia (or maybe just the longest-running koala-specific one – possibly both, I’m not sure). I don’t remember how long it’s been going, but I think somewhere around 20 or 25 years.

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One of the koalas (Phascolarctos cinerius) spotted at the 2016 Annual Narrandera Koala Count.

Last year, sadly, it was rained out, which prompted the organisers this year to make sure an alternate date was set in advance, in case the same thing happened. Happily it was unneeded, and the koala count went ahead as planned, last weekend.

Like many areas across Australia, Narrandera’s koala population was wiped out sometime in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but unlike most areas they were re-introduced in the 1970s, and the current population has grown up from those re-introduced individuals. I have been told that a few more individuals were unofficially introduced (read: smuggled in someone’s car) at some point, but I have no idea if that’s true.

Current estimates of the total size of the koala population in and around Narrandera vary from 200 to 400, but I’m not sure how those figures are calculated exactly. I assume the National Parks folks have some sort of guidelines for extrapolating from numbers spotted in an area of known size, based on koala population dynamics, to get an estimate of how many there might be across the total area.

I do know that the Narrandera population is a) one of the healthiest (ie disease-free) koala populations in Australia, and b) the only one in the Riverina – although people do sometimes mention the odd sighting in other towns along the river. It’s also not well publicised, to the point where visitors to the town often don’t even know there are koalas present, and as I just discovered, they’re not even mentioned on the town’s Wikipedia page, which is kind of terrible.

One of the reasons for the annual count is to get an idea of how many koalas are present (again, see assumptions about  extrapolating from known data, because there’s no way every koala present in that reserve was spotted last weekend). Another reason is to keep tabs on the health of the koalas, by visually checking for signs of disease. Being so isolated from other populations actually works quite well as a quarantine measure for keeping diseases out, although some members of the regeneration committee have raised the question of potential risk from inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity. It would be interesting to have a genetic study of the population done, but I doubt anyone would be able to fund something like that for pure curiosity’s sake.

This year’s count had 157 volunteers taking part, some of them locals, many of them from across the broader region, and I met a couple of young women from Sydney and a man from the United States – although I will be generous and assume they were there because they happened to be visiting local relatives at the right time, rather than that they travelled all that way for the express purpose of going koala counting. 🙂

The group I was with found three koalas, and overall 30 were counted within the 2 hours of the activity. I went looking for the marked trees afterward, and got photos of some of the koalas found by other groups, as well as my own.

And now, on to the pictures!

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Koala-finding tip 1: look for lumps in trees
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And then look closer (binoculars are your friends)
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Koalas look cute and fluffy, so people always forget that they have massive sharp claws
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This is not a koala, this is a chough nest. Choughs are cool, remind me to talk about choughs sometime.
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Oh wait, there’s some. White-winged choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos). Not actually related to European choughs.
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I temporarily forgot that the people reading my blog see kangaroos less often than I do, so I didn’t get a lot of photos of the ones we saw – you may need to embiggen to see the ones in this photo
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Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) in amongst River Red Gum trees (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
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There are at least four kangaroos (or parts thereof) visible in this picture
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Hi there koala
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Koala-finding tip 2: look for droppings (admittedly easier on a track surface than on bark litter)
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Closer view – the droppings are greenish-brown and shaped like fat cylinders with tapered ends, they also smell eucalyptus-y when fresh (no, I don’t pick them up to smell them, why do people keep asking me that?)

 

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Fungus on a tree – I remember getting a picture of a very similar fungus on a red gum at Narrandera last year too, definitely not the same tree though
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Koala-finding tip 3: look for claw-marks (keep in mind though that koalas aren’t the only species that leave claw marks as they climb)
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Close-up view of fresh koala claw-marks
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I’m not sure what happened here – maybe they slipped?

 

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Okay, I just wanted to include this picture because it looks cool – but claw marks!
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Old scarring from claw marks inflicted some time in the past
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Very fresh claw marks – see how the bark has ripped out a bit more in some places
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Koala-finding tip 4: go looking right after there’s been a local counting event, and look for marked trees 😉

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Koala feet!
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More choughs! And a Pied Currawong. Both the choughs and the currawongs were in fine voice the whole day, it was lovely
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Two choughs pretending to be harbingers of doom – big black birds with red eyes (but they’re so much fun to watch, really)

I also popped down to have a look at the river – it’s a bit low at the moment (it’s regulated, like all the major rivers I know, so height of flow doesn’t always reflect upstream weather patterns).

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The river water is so full of silt that you can only see through it near the edges, where it’s really shallow – that said, this is a photo taken through the water of what I think is a bird print in the clay
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2 thoughts on “April 2016 Field Visit – Narrandera’s Koala Count

  1. A.M. Valenza April 26, 2016 / 3:28 am

    (Reply to the comment left on my site) That’s a really interesting way to manage a river. I wonder if there are any done the same way here? The U.S. has a wide variety of landscapes, including deserts out in the southwest. Most of it is temperate or wetland, though, with tons of river systems.

    The Potomac doesn’t have algae bloom problems that I know of, just that it’s generally polluted with a lot of weird chemicals. The color of the water is fairly similar, except maybe more grayish. Not as much silt, just murky waters. I know swimming and fishing were strongly discouraged when it first came to light, but it’s been a while since then. I’ll make sure to check out the Potomac when I get a chance!

    (Reply for here!) Those trees are super thick! I don’t see very many thick trees so close in proximity – the kangaroo pic, for reference – or maybe it’s an optical illusion? I know I didn’t put my hand against any trees for reference in size in my post, but most of the trees I could hug very comfortably, and many I could wrap one or two hands around, they’re so thin.

    I love the chough in the first pic, but I got a little confused by the picture of the Pied bird. Which are which? (I totally want to use the choughs in a story now too! So many birds I want to use in stories, inspired by your blog!)

    Okay, and that Koala feet picture was HARDCORE ADORABLE UGH SO CUTE. I had no idea they had neon green eucalyptus poop cylinders. I can’t believe I had to type that out. *snort*

    -Sure- you don’t sniff them. Sure.

    I believe you.

    *snerk*

    Liked by 1 person

    • riverinawildlife April 26, 2016 / 10:46 am

      Re. Rivers – Australia has comparatively few rivers compared to most other continents, and the majority of the continent doesn’t get a lot of rain. The Murrumbidgee (our local river) is controlled by two dams upstream, which also run the hydro-electricity scheme, so all of our electricity down here is hydro-electric (other parts of Australia use coal, or wind turbines). Except when there’s toxic algal blooms the water in the Murrumbidgee is generally safe to swim and fish in, it’s just dirty, which limits the amount of light that can penetrate the water, which affects the species living in the water, and also leads to problems further downstream with the silt load choking up the mouth of the river. So yeah, good and bad outcomes from regulating the rivers.

      Re. your other comments:
      Some of those trees are really old, like hundreds of years old, so some of them a pretty huge around, although I’ve seen even bigger river red gums in some places. Most of the trees are 80 or more years old (I think) – the site was set aside for logging once, I think, and then later was just kept as native bush for recreational purposes, and it backs onto a section that’s now part of the Nation Parks system. Between grazing by kangaroos, rabbits, hares, and horses (don’t even get me started on the horses), as well as human activity and BIG gaps between floods (partly climate-related, partly river-regulation-related), there’s not been a lot of recruitment of baby trees for a long time, so there’s not a lot of young ones. There are sections currently that are thick with saplings, after the flooding a few years ago, but they’re smallish sections, and the last major flood event before that was in the late 1980’s or early 1990s. So that’s a long way of saying there’s not a lot of young trees, and given room to grow most eucalypts can get pretty darn big over time.

      Sorry to be confusing about the birds – the choughs are all black, except when they spread their wings – their open wings have a ‘fan’ of white that’s not visible when their wings are folded. The Pied Currawongs are mostly black with a pattern of white on the wings, back, and tail, that’s always visible. In the photo with both, the choughs are on the ground, and the currawong is flying down. You can compare the photo with the one of the chough with spread wings (the first one after the nest pic) to see what I mean about the different patterns of white, you may need to click on the pictures to view them larger. For bonus confusion points, we also get Pied Butcher-birds and Australian Magpies around here, which are also black-and-white birds of around the same size. Also Australian Ravens, which are all black. You learn to recognise the difference in the pattern of black and white on each species, and the differences in the shapes of the heads and bills, but when you’re not familiar with them it can get confusing very fast.

      Choughs would be really cool to use in a story – they live in complex family groups, build clay nests reinforced with straw/dead grass (like you do when making mud bricks), defend their territories against other groups (family vendetta anyone?) and I read something the other day that says they keep slaves, but I need to look into that further. I’ll do some more reading up on them and might dedicate a blog post to them sometime.

      And I said koala poo is greenish-brown, not neon green, they’re not quite that bright. 😛 You can see some in the photos I posted. I’m not sure how obvious they are to people who don’t know what to look for though.

      And there’s no need to sniff them – when they’re fresh you can smell them without needing to. Koala urine also has a really distinctive (and weird) smell. Kind of a sharp, eucalyptus-y scent, it’s hard to describe. I found a koala once that had just peed all over the path below, I smelled it first and was wondering what the scent was, and then I found the koala and the damp spatters in the dust and it all became clear.

      Liked by 1 person

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