Having never travelled into the Australian countryside as far as Naree I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had images in my mind of dark red sand with sparse vegetation, the feeling of intense heat during the day and a clear, star-lit sky at night. Following a near two-day drive from Sydney and arriving via a dusty and sometimes bumpy road, I knew it was going to be a very unique experience.
I was lucky enough to be volunteering on a PhD research project run by Justin McCann, and fellow volunteer Ira Dudley-Bestow. With Justin’s research focusing on the effects of boom and bust periods on wetland ecosystems in the area, this trip was aimed at recording the abundance of small mammals, specifically Stripe-faced and Fat-tailed Dunnarts.
We were warmly welcomed by Sue and David Akers who manage Naree and Yantabulla Station. They kindly showed us around the living quarters and told us some important tips to keep safe – always wear shoes and do a sweeping check of the toilet shed for snakes before using it!
On the first day we needed to set up the fence lines for the pitfall traps. I quickly found out which sites had burrs, spikes and other nasties that stopped me from getting too close to the ground. Luckily, we were able to set up the fences quite fast and escape the harsh heat of the day by the river, with a nice hour or so of bird watching.
It was clear from the beginning that Ira was very talented at identifying birds and their calls. Throughout the trip he was able to identify 106 bird species just within the Naree and Yantabulla properties, which was an incredible feat in the short time we were there. With Brolgas, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo and Blue Bonnets among the highlights.
Not your usual daily grind
Each day started early with a great cup of coffee followed by checks of the pitfall traps, a well-deserved lunch break and then back out to the sites in the late-afternoon to open the traps up for the evening. It was a great thrill and surprise every time we found a dunnart. They're very sweet and small little marsupials that fit within the palm of your hand. Some were feisty but most we encountered were quite shy.
Processing them included noting species ID by examining their foot pads, taking several body measurements, as well as collecting samples from each individual. Then we released them and watched on like concerned parents to make sure they found a safe spot to hide out during the daytime.
Apart from the dunnarts we also caught a large number of centipedes, several different species of frogs, a few scorpions and very surprisingly a Sand Goanna!
During the heat of the day we had free time to rest. But being in the country with other nature enthusiasts there were always so many things to explore. Fishing for field shrimp with a home engineered hat-net and broom stick, bird watching at the wetlands near the homestead or going for cycling trips around the area were a few of the highlights.
When it rains, it pours
One day when the heat was getting to me, despite drinking litres of water and sticking to the shade, the rain finally came. It was a sweet relief. That was until the next day when it was clear that most of the driving routes had flooded.
Ira and I had to take turns going out in the buggy with Justin to check the sites to make sure we didn’t bog the 4WD or destroy the tracks. This was an adventure in itself, and you had to keep your mouth closed and sunnies on to make sure the bugs didn’t get in your mouth or face!
Conservation and protection
As a student studying Biodiversity and Conservation I really learnt a lot from the dedicated conservation strategies that are being carried out across Naree and Yantabulla.
With the effort of David and Sue managing the properties for Bush Heritage and South Endeavour Trust, protecting these areas ensures the significant wetland ecosystem will be preserved for years to come. Through the management plans it's clear they aim to restore the vital ecological function to the area and protect its natural biodiversity including waterbirds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
Being able to volunteer on a research project in such a uniquely significant environment, while also seeing conservation work in practice was an incredible experience, and one that will stay with me in my future, hopefully as a conservation scientist myself.