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Echidna at Gnaraloo, Western Australia

Feral Animal Tracking Training with Mike Butcher

We’re into our second week at Gnaraloo and things are really getting underway. Mel wasn’t joking when she said “you guys need to be prepared to hit the ground running once at the station.”

Two days following our arrival, Mike Butcher, from Animal Pest Management Services joined us at Gnaraloo to train us in feral animal tracking. In the past, foxes, wild dogs, and feral cats, have been a major threat to turtle nests in the Gnaraloo Bay Rookery and Gnaraloo Cape Farquhar Rookery. Mike’s expertise in feral animal control and efforts in conservation have earned him the Australasian Wildlife Management Society’s Practitioners Award 2014 for the project “Management of Loggerhead Turtles at Gnaraloo Bay, Western Australia”. So obviously we were thrilled to have him as an instructor.

We spent the first morning of training in somewhat of a classroom setting. Mike gave us a background of the Gnaraloo Feral Animal Control Program – how it started up (2008) and its progression to current success (zero feral animal predation on turtle nests during the last four seasons). The slideshow highlighted the three main predators of concern (fox, wild dog, feral cat) and a few others likely to be observed on the beach (e.g. goat, sheep, kangaroo). Mike pointed out key characteristics in identifying the tracks. We all very studiously took notes and drew diagrams in anticipation for our afternoon outing where our newly obtained skills would be tested.

Following lunch we took to the unmarked tangle of roads beyond the Gnaraloo Homestead. We made our way to BP10 (a point just north, outside of our daily surveyed area and the beginning of the sanctuary zone) all the while stopping to observe roadside tracks. Mike pointed out not just predator tracks but other animals as well such as, goat, sheep, kangaroo, goanna and rabbit. Along our way, we also stopped to set up pitfall traps, which are designed to catch small mammals and lizards in order to assess the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Feral animal training
Hot on the trail!

Our afternoon excursion turned out not to just be a lesson in tracking but also in four wheel driving and navigating. Toby drove the turtle vehicle skillfully but still managed to get bogged in the dunes. We all benefited from the experience.

We got to practice using the MAXTRAX™ and digging out the ute. It also became clear that vehicle trouble is a major concern and why vehicle and safety checks are so important.

On our way back to camp we came across an echidna crossing the road. We were all so excited! Mike pointed out its fresh tracks, which may also be observed during our surveys and he explained the proper way to handle it.

Turtle car getting unbogged
Teamwork! Getting unbogged!

The rest of the week entailed more tracking journeys all over Gnaraloo station. We set up Elliot traps which were checked daily with the pitfall traps. We went spotlight hunting for feral cats in the evening. The pitfalls turned up a couple of dunnarts (small, native mouse-like marsupials) and a gecko, but the Elliot traps and spotlighting have not been successful.

Even in times when the action is slow, Mike’s boisterous personality and captivating anecdotes keep things fun yet educational. I know each one of us will be sad to see him go this Friday, and look forward to his next visit.

Bailey Rankine

Echidna - Gnaraloo wildlife
Bailey with an echidna
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