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Cat tracking from the air

Simon Smale (Healthy Landscape Manager)
Published 01 May 2019 by Simon Smale (Healthy Landscape Manager)

It's encouraging to see increasing recognition of the terrible toll feral cats are exacting on our native wildlife, and increasing concern to do something about it.

Early Monday morning I headed out to Red Moort Reserve to get up in the air with feral cat researcher Sarah Comer and her Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions colleague, Abby, to locate the feral cats Sarah has collared across our Fitz-Stirling landscape on the South Coast of Western Australia.

Cat control programs are costly. Making best use of scarce conservation dollars requires that we target control measures as tightly as we can.

Building understanding of the ecology of target species – in this case feral cats – is critical to that. And the ecology of feral cats – abundance, diet, parts of the landscape occupied, movements including home range, interactions with each other and with other species including other introduced ferals, and so on – varies according to habitat type.

Until now we've had very little understanding of feral cats in the fragmented landscape we operate in between the Stirling Range and Fitzgerald River National Parks.

The tracking collars on Sarah's cats contain loggers that capture data on the animals' movements. Locating the elusive cats and downloading data from the collars is painstaking, slow work on the ground.

It can be done much more efficiently from the air, with the cats quickly located from the signals emitted by the collars, and then the data downloaded to computer as the helicopter hovers directly overhead.

Completing the job in a couple of hours on Monday, Sarah and Abby then headed east to Cape Arid National Park, where they're spending several days putting out 70 cat traps to afford added protection for the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot in its last stronghold.

With our control planning informed by the results of Sarah's work on cat occupancy and movement in our patch, we look forward to implementing our own integrated control plan for cats, foxes and rabbits.

It was a cool, squally morning, but not too windy to fly.  Nice to have the Michael Tichbon Field Station at Red Moort as an operational base to work from. It was a cool, squally morning, but not too windy to fly. Nice to have the Michael Tichbon Field Station at Red Moort as an operational base to work from.
Sarah. Abby and our pilot Brian Goodwin fixing the receiving antenna to the machine. Sarah. Abby and our pilot Brian Goodwin fixing the receiving antenna to the machine.
The collared cats are quickly located from the air, with the aggregated data on the collars downloaded to computer while hovering directly overhead. The collared cats are quickly located from the air, with the aggregated data on the collars downloaded to computer while hovering directly overhead.
Interesting where the animals choose to locate themselves. Interesting where the animals choose to locate themselves.
We tracked one to this sliver of bush on a creekline, which we're learning is a favoured place to hang out, on a neighbouring farm.
Done by lunchtime on a showery day, and home again across Monjebup Creek to the Field Station. Done by lunchtime on a showery day, and home again across Monjebup Creek to the Field Station.

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