The Woylie at Dryandra Woodland
In November of each year Project Numbat undertakes a dig survey of both Boyagin Nature Reserve and Dryandra Woodland. The survey gives an indication of how Numbat populations are faring, along with information about the distribution of Numbats at these reserves.
I assisted with the Dryandra survey last year, held within a recently fenced enclosure at one of the outer blocks of Dryandra Woodland. This block was chosen for the fenced enclosure because it contained an extant population of Numbats. Another endangered marsupial was placed into the enclosure after the removal of ferals, and this was the Woylie (Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi,) also known as the Brush-tailed Bettong.
In previous years, volunteers have flushed the odd Woylie while walking around looking for Numbat digs, but this year much larger numbers of Woylies were flushed from the undergrowth, in fact around fifteen animals each day!
It is extremely pleasing to know Woylies are doing so well within the enclosure in the absence of the devastating influence of introduced cats and foxes, though this is not surprising. Woylies, in common with other macropods, can carry pouch young as well as an embryo in diapause in the womb, meaning it is possible to produce young year-round when resources are plentiful.
Looking for Numbat digs in a she-oak grove on Saturday the first survey day, I flushed a Woylie from a nearby shrub, closer inspection revealed a scrape underneath the shrub. These scrapes contain spherical nests typically lined with grass, leaves, bark and sticks and it is where Woylies lie-up during they day.
At the end of each day of surveying, the motley gang of volunteers retire to Lions Dryandra Village to socialise over a meal and a beverage. After the meal is finished I make the most of the night at Dryandra and spotlight the surrounding woodland to hopefully encounter some of the charming nocturnal inhabitants.
Dryandra Woodland is far from a pristine woodland, parts of the main block have been modified for agricultural purposes. The most obvious of these modifications are the large areas that have been replaced by Mallet Plantations, but other modifications include an Arboretum and a Sandalwood Plantation.
The Sandalwood Plantation on Gura Road was established in the late 70’s and contains Sandalwood (santalum album) planted along with the host tree from which it parasitizes, in this case Raspberry Jam Wattle (Acacia acuminata.) An unintended but rather fabulous consequence of this plantation is the food it supplies to Woylie population of Dryandra.
Sandalwood Plantation at Dryandra Woodland.
When I first started visiting Dryandra Woodland in 2010 the chances of seeing a Woylie were somewhat slim. They had initially been a conservation success story following fox control, at one point being seen around the village accommodation in huge numbers.
Numbers then crashed circa 2006, which is now thought to be a result of increased cat numbers in turn resulting from fox control (mesopredator release.) Since Eradicat (targeting feral cats,) has been recently trialled at Dryandra it has resulted in large increases in native species, and Woylies are once again common.
Sandalwood trees fruit during the months of November and December at Dryandra Woodland and this time of year results in increased Woylie encounters at the Sandalwood Plantation. The night of the Numbat Survey ten animals were seen within the space of an hour. Whilst some animals were flighty the ones engrossed in consuming sandalwood nuts were easier to approach.
Woylie savouring a sandalwood nut – Dryandra Woodland.
Not all the sandalwood nuts are consumed immediately, some are cached by the Woylies and so they are acting as seed dispersal vectors for the sandalwood, evidenced by the large number of seedlings and bushes now on the East of Gura Rd outside of the plantation.
It is not only sandalwood nuts that Woylies spread, they also consume truffles along with the associated fungus contained within the truffle, which are also spread through the forests with positive benefits to the trees such as increased canopy.
Woylies are not the only wildlife to be found at the Sandalwood Plantation. Other wildlife that can be encountered include Banjo Frogs, Echidnas and Western Grey Kangaroos. Red-tailed Phascogales seem to like hanging out in the mixture of She-oak and Wandoo Woodland to the back of the plantation, as well as being seen in the sandalwood. Brushtail Possums are common in all the trees within and around the plantation.
Brushtail Possum – Sandalwood Plantation – Dryandra Woodland.
It is not just the Sandalwood Plantation and fenced enclosure that are good for Woylies, now that effective cat control is in place they are found throughout the main block of Dryandra.
Later that evening spotlighting from the car, a pair of yellow eyes drew my attention. It was a juvenile Woylie that froze under the beam. While photographing the juvenile a snort from nearby alerted me to an anxious mother, my cue to leave.
Juvenile Woylie – Dryandra Woodland.
Until recently Woylies were also found at Tutanning Nature Reserve in the Wheatbelt, but unfortunately Tutanning, once a flagship reserve of the Southwest, has sadly not received the attention of Dryandra and Perup and so Woylie numbers declined by 95%. The last Woylies were removed from Tutanning a decade ago and taken to Perth Zoo for breeding to improve the genetic diversity of the species.
See here for encounters with other Bettong species
in Tasmania – the Tasmanian Bettong see Quolls and other Wildlife of Tasmania.
in Queensland – the Rufous Bettong see Queensland Wildlife 2019 – Part 1 of 4 – Tolderodden Regional Park to Taunton National Park and Australia’s Rarest Wallaby
in Queensland – the Rufous Bettong see Queensland Wildlife 2019 – Part 3 of 4 – The Southern Atherton Tablelands and Undara Lava Tubes.
On Sunday we completed the survey of the 100 sites within the fenced enclosure by lunchtime, thanks to long hours put in the previous day. We then returned to the accommodation to have lunch on what was now a very hot November day.
Anyone who has stayed at Lions Dryandra Village would have heard otherworldly screams piercing the night. Although these wails would seem to emanate from the supernatural, they do in fact belong to a rather beautiful bird the Bush Stone-curlew, also known as the Bush Thick-knee, on account of their knobbly knees.
These birds can often be seen early morning around the village but are a little bit furtive and camera shy. As a final treat for the weekend as we ate lunch at Numbat Cottage, in a tree adjacent to the cottage, incapacitated by the heat were two of the usually shy Curlews!
Bush Stone-curlews – Dryandra Woodland.
The Woylie at Perup
The other stronghold of the Woylie is Tone-Perup Nature Reserve in the Southern Forests, in fact this population was the source of the Dryandra Woodland translocation post-crash. Although chance encounters are possible throughout the forest, a stay at Perup Nature’s Guesthouse is the best way to encounter this species. It had been a while since I had spent time at https://www.perupnaturesguesthouse.com.au/ and to check how the Woylie population was faring seemed the perfect excuse to visit!
Walking around Perup Nature’s Guesthouse late afternoon the diggings of small marsupials were everywhere. Woylies are thought to shift upto 5 tonnes of soil per year as they forage for bulbs, tubers, fungi and seeds. The benefits of this foraging include the recycling of nutrients as well as allowing moisture to penetrate the soil. It has recently been speculated that the breakdown of leaf litter can help in the prevention of low-intensity bushfires. A very useful marsupial indeed!
Woylie Digs at Perup.
It is not only fresh seeds that Woylies consume. On a previous visit to Perup in 2019 I encountered a Woylie happily muching through the seeds in Emu poop! See the link below:-
Later that evening, an hour after dark proper, I set out along the Bandicoot Scoot Trail to look for Woylies. It didn’t take long to find the first one, it was immediately behind the accommodation, such is the abundance of wildlife at Perup.
The scientific name for the Woylie is Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi. Penicillata translates as tufted and refers to the brushy tail of the Woylie. The brushy black tail hairs are clearly visible on the tail as seen in the photo below. The common name of Brush-tailed Bettong also relates to the tail.
Brush-tailed Bettong or Woylie (with pouch young.)
Woylies, in common with other macropods are hoppers, and look very much like amusing little clockwork toys as they move around the bush. When threatened with danger however, those powerful hind legs mean a Woylie can achieve great speeds to escape predators.
Although the forepaws of Woylies may look redundant in comparision to the powerful hind legs, they are effective digging tools, seen well in the photo below.
Woylie Claws – Perup.
One evening at Perup I was walking the Bandicoot Scoot Trail right on dusk as nocturnal marsupials were starting to emerge, when a shadow from above caught my attention landing in a tree, it was a Wedge-tailed Eagle on the hunt. Unlike the cats and foxes, Wedge-tailed eagles are natural predators of Woylies and other small marsupials, in common with Carpet Pythons and probably Chuditch.
The alarm call of a Woylie is distinctive, the best sound that I can liken it to is a very loud supressed hiccup. There has been many a night I have been ambling through the bush at night spotlighting, when I have nearly jumped out of my skin at the alarm call of a Woylie, as it crashes off into the distance…
Woylie – Perup.
On a recent visit to Perup Nature’s Guesthouse, I spoke to guests returning from a spotlight to enquire on their sightings. Their reply of seeing “only Possums and Woylies” was truly insightful.
Woylies were once a marsupial that was very hard to see in the wild, in the matter of a decade this has all turned around and the species is quite common at Dryandra Woodland and Perup. This is thanks to the amazing work of DBCA and the Western Shield Program. Long may the work continue…