Project Numbat Dig Surveys – Spots and Stripes at Dryandra Woodland.

Every November Project Numbat, in association with the Dept of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA,) conduct dig surveys at Boyagin Nature Reserve and Dryandra Woodland, to establish how well Numbat populations are faring at these important Wheatbelt Reserves.

The Numbat once occurred across Southern Australia as far as Western NSW, but introduced predators meant a drastic reduction in the range of this most endearing marsupial. At its nadir the entire world Numbat population was restricted to only two reserves in SW Australia, while current thinking puts the population of the Numbat at only 1000 animals!

The annual Boyagin Nature Reserve dig survey is always held during a weekend in early November, temperatures approaching 40C are endured in the field almost every year. Character building stuff! While conditions are often tough, this is outweighed by great company, excellent food and great wildlife sightings over the weekend.

Although the survey is conducted at Boyagin Nature Reserve, the accomodation for the weekend is at the quaint woodcutter cottages situated in Dryandra Woodland, and so it was to Dryandra that I found myself driving on a warm Friday afternoon.

I arrived at the woodland mid afternoon after the two hour drive from Perth, and as I wasn’t due to meet the rest of the team at the accomodation till sunset, I decided to put the free time to good use, and drive the roads and tracks of Dryandra looking for wildlife.

It was a beautiful, warm Spring evening at Dryandra and the late afternoon sun cast long shadows on the forest floor. The first animal I encountered as the car crawled along, was a browsing Western Brush Wallaby.

Brush Wallabies are a species often seen at Dryandra Woodland, but it is an extremely timid animal and views of this wallaby are usually brief as it bounds for cover. This animal however, was unperturbed by the car engine, which meant I was afforded a rare chance of a photograph.

Another name for this wallaby is the Black-gloved Wallaby and the animal in the image below perfectly demonstrates why.

Western Brush Wallaby.

As I continued a slow drive down the track a flash of movement caught my attention, a juvenile Numbat dashing for the safety of a log. I lost the animal as it shot off into the undergrowth. Shortly afterwards however I came across a second Numbat sitting on the track, this one fortunately hung around for a few photos before sauntering off seemingly unalarmed.

Juvenile Numbat.

November is the month that young Numbats disperse from the maternal burrow, indeed, this is the reason Numbat surveys are carried out in November. It was possible having seen two young animals in such close proximity that these Numbats were in the process of dispersing from a nearby maternal burrow to find their own territories.

I parked up the car and gave it 10 minutes before returning along the vehicle track on foot, and it wasn’t long before I came across a Numbat.

I moved slowly so as not to alarm the Numbat which was under 10m away. It definately wasn’t feeding, exploring seemed to be a better description. As it became aware of my presence it stood up to check me out, but clearly wasn’t threatened because after giving me the once over it continued as was.

Numbat alert for danger.

In total I spent upwards of 30 minutes observing and photographing the animal as it moved around, although at one point it had a quick dig at the side of a log and fed on termites it seemed to me to be killing time before returning a burrow for the night.

Eventually, with definate purpose it headed in my direction to the base of a tree where it stopped to consider me before disappearing into a hollow at the base which was its sleeping quarters for the night. This Numbat burrow was the first that I had found.

Numbat Returning to Burrow.

The following morning was an early start to leave Dryandra Woodland at 6am for the 30 minute drive to nearby Boyagin. On arrival we split into two groups to start surveying the 100+ predetermined sites for evidence of Numbats in the form of digs and scats.

The dig of a Numbat is a shallow often u-shaped scrape in the soil where they have searched for underground termite galleries, their sole food source. There are lots of soil indentations and digs in the forest floor of the Wheatbelt Reserves and it takes training and practice to differentiate Numbat digs from the diggings of other forest dwellers such as the Echidna, Woylie and Ant-lion.

From the presence of these diggings (and scat,) it is possible to estimate how much habitat at Boyagin Reserve contains Numbats and therefore how well the species is doing here, especially when compared with data from other years.

Classic Numbat Diggings in the forest floor at Boyagin.

The Woodland at Boyagin is similar to that of nearby Dryandra and is a mix of Wandoo, Powderbark, Brown Mallet and She-oak interspersed with patches of Heath.

Stunning Powderbark Woodland at Boyagin Nature Reserve.

Saturday was predicted to be a very hot 40C at its peak and as the day warmed there were the usual reptile suspects warming up on the roads and tracks, with both Gould’s Monitor Lizards and the Bobtail pictured below seen.

Bobtail Lizard at Boyagin.

Most years we encounter a Numbat whilst undertaking the survey and this year was no exception with a juvenile darting across Lorikeet Rd and into a log from where we were able to observe it.

Numbat at Boyagin.

Just shy of midday the wind had dropped off and the temperature was soaring close to 40C, there was discussion about whether to call the survey off for the day when the wind picked up providing some relief, and it was determined we would continue.

At the the close of the first day our group had surveyed the majority of the allocated sights in Boyagin’s East block and we were definately ready for a shower and a cold beer, so we returned to Dryandra Woodland arriving at 5pm.

Once back at Dryandra I had one thing to do before my shower, and that was to return to the track I had driven the previous evening to see if the excellent wildlife sightings could be repeated. This immediately proved to be the case with the Western Brush Wallaby seen in almost exactly the same spot as the previous evening and equally as happy to pose for the camera!

Western Brush Wallaby at Dryandra Woodland.

Then in a carbon copy of the previous night the juvenile Numbat was once again in the vicinity of it’s burrow, and I was able to spend around 30 minutes observing the Numbat. Once again although cautious of my presence it tolerated me as long as I kept a respectful distance.

Numbat at Dryandra Woodland.

It was clearly time for bed as the Numbat gave a few yawns displaying its impressive 10cm tongue. The tongue of a Numbat is a quarter of its body length and is a formidable asset in collecting the 20,000 termites it requires every day.

Numbat displaying an impressive tongue!

It had been an incredible experience being able to spend time in close proximity with such a endangered species, but it was time to let the Numbat go to bed and for me to get some that shower and a well deserved dinner, so after a final photo I jumped back into the car and returned to the accomodation.

Numbat at Dryandra Woodland.

Sunday morning was once again an early start and we were up at first light. As usual there were plenty of Western Grey Kangaroos around Dryandra Village.

Western Grey Kangaroos at Dryandra Village.

Fortunately the temperatures forecast for Sunday were far lower than those experienced on Saturday and the groups were swapped meaning my group were surveying Boyagin’s West Block. We were ready to go at 7am and it was easy work in the cool morning, before the arrival of the plague of flies that came with the rising temperatures.

One of the earlier sites we surveyed that day was in heath and even though it was late Spring there was still lots flowering in this habitat at Boyagin with all of Verticordia, Pindak, and Melaleuca still in flower.

Flowering Heath at Boyagin Nature Reserve. L-R Verticordia, Pindak, Melaleuca.

During the course of the morning we saw a further two Numbats. The first dashed into a log on Kestrel Road, the second was more obliging forgaing for termites in the heat of the late morning, adjacent to the farmer fields.

Numbat at Boyagin.

We had covered the majority of the survey sites on Saturday so with the arrival of lunchtime Sunday the bulk of the work was done. Tamara as usual had prepared an excellent lunch which we enjoyed at the newly renovated and very impressive day use area at Boyagin Rock.

Project Numbat Survey Team – Boyagin 2019 .

With the last of the sites completed after lunch it was time to return to Perth happy in the knowledge that surveying at Boyagin was complete for another year. Hopefully the data collected would show this amazing species was continuing to thrive at Boyagin.

Two weeks later I returned to Dryandra for a second survey, this time at Montague Block an outlying block of Dryandra Woodland. Dryandra Woodland is unfortunately a complex of 17 blocks separated by farmland. The larger a block the better chance native wildlife has of surviving introduced predators (cats and foxes,) and as Montague Block is a larger block a population of Numbats had persisted here where they had disappeared from the smaller blocks.

To protect this Numbat Population a 14.7 km predator proof fence has been erected to protect 1000 hectares of Montague Block with its extant Numbat population.

Arrival at Dryandra Woodland on Friday afternoon was later than the visit two weeks previous and was on what had once again been a warm day. Some days it is immediately apparent that wildlife is going to be plentiful and this was such an afternoon with two Echidnas and a Western Brush Wallaby seen on the drive along Tomingley Road.

The Echidna is named after Ekhidna a Greek mythological being half woman and half serpent. A reference no doubt to the fact that the Echidna is one of only two Monotemes (the other being the Platypus,) and that this ancient lineage of mammals rather than giving birth to live young, lay eggs like the reptiles

Echidna.

I headed to the North East of the reserve and explored a beautiful mallet plantation when I noticed a pungent odour eminating from within a fallen log in the plantation. When I cast my headtorch into the log I could see the white-spotted coat of a sleeping Chuditch, how fabulous, this was surely worth further investigation!

Dryandra Woodland in common with the other larger Wheatbelt Reserves of Boyagin and Tutanning contain stands of Brown Mallet plantation (Eucalyptus astringens.) Some of these stands are natural, others have been planted, for the tree has many uses. Prior to the production of synthetic dyes its bark which contains upto 40% tannins was used for tanning leather. Other uses include tool handles, fence posts and firewood.

The Western Quoll or Chuditch, Western Australia’s largest marsupial carnivore about the size of a domestic cat is often associated with mallet plantations. The animal has a beautiful light brown colouration and the coat is covered in white spots that diminish the outline from the moon when the animal is hunting. Although it is a fearsome predator of insects, frogs, lizards, birds and small mammals the animal can be extremely shy and hard to observe in the field.

I decided to further explore the mallet plantation until after dusk had fallen to see if the Chuditch could be seen as it set off on its nightly excursion.

Returning to the log an hour later I found the occupant awake, so I placed myself against a tree away from the log entrance and switched on my red light. The Chuditch was certainly aware of my presence and was cautious to exit giving a spectacular yawn showing its razor sharp teeth. I managed a few shots as it stirred before retreating to a further distance to give the wild animal space.

Chuditch or Western Quoll.

Unusually for this species it was extremely tolerant of my presence, and provided I kept a respectful distance I was able to further observe it as it sauntered off into the mallet plantation. It hopped up on a fallen stump and dived into the depths looking for wood boring insects and I managed a couple more photos. As much as I wanted to continue the experience it was time to leave the Chuditch in peace.

Chuditch or Western Quoll.

At Dryandra Village I had an excellent dinner with the dig survey team before driving around the woodland for a few hours of spotlighting. Brushtail Possums and Woylies (Brush-tailed Bettongs) were abundant as always, and there was also Western Spotted Frog sitting nonchalantly in the dry conditions.

Clockwise from left :- Brushtail Possum, Western Spotted Frog, Brush-tailed Bettong (Woylie.)

There had been an unusually large number of Rabbits on the drive into Dryandra and so I returned to Fourteen Mile Brook Road during the night on a whim and found an introduced juvenile Fox on the prowl that allowed close approach.

This species is absolutely devastating to Australia’s native wildlife and is not an animal I like to see when spotlighting, but I was really taken by this playful juvenile and only wished it was living a safer life outside of Australia, where it could not wreak such havoc.

European Fox.

Saturday morning was an early start and I met the dig survey team at the village to drive out to Montague Block. Despite the Project Numbat Team surveying this site since 2016 this was my first time joining the survey of this site and I as we entered the complex I felt very priveliged.

Fenced Enclosure, Montague Block, Dryandra Woodland.

Similarly to Boyagin we were surveying predetermined sites for Numbat diggings. At each site a 100m radius around the vehicle is searched for 10 minutes for evidence of Numbats. Numbats are not the only endangered marsupial in reserve, Woylies have also been added in an attempt to bolster that population. At one site mid-morning the team flushed a Woylie and young that shot off into the bush.

Morning tea in the Bush.

Over the course of the day it was clear that the Numbats at the fenced reserve are doing well although they are yet to spread out over the entire area, protected from cats and foxes as they now are, they have a chance to do so.

Apart from the Woylies the only wildlife I saw during the course of the surveying was a pair of Bush Stone-curlews. The other group were very lucky to find a Tawny Frogmouth nest with young, something I was sad to miss.

I had a commitment in the city Saturday evening so at the end of the day I made the return journey to Perth leaving the team to complete the survey the following day.

As I drove home I thought about the abundant rare wildlife that call the Wheatbelt Reserves of Dryandra and Boyagin home and therefore how important it is that these Reserves are afforded the protection of National Park status, something hopefully imminent for Dryandra Woodland at least.

It appears that the Numbats are doing well at the reserves if the six animals I saw over the Boyagin Survey weekend are anything to go by, hopefully the survey results will confirm this.

With dates proposed for the 2020 surveys I am already looking forward to returning next year with the Project Numbat Team. #NatureNeverFailsToImpress!

5 thoughts on “Project Numbat Dig Surveys – Spots and Stripes at Dryandra Woodland.

  1. Love it Jimmy.
    How awesome are those chuditch images! My favourite numbat image is the one just inside the log.
    Glad yoy enjoyed the surveys. See you next year.
    Tamara

    Liked by 1 person

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