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View from the top of one of the two peaks of Mt Caroline Nature Reserve © Ashleigh Chauvin

Black-flanked rock wallaby, Central Wheatbelt, Southwest Australia © Craig Pentland

Have you got what it takes to collect poo for science?

19 Aug 2020

Keywords
  • threatened species
  • wallabies
  • western australia

Australia’s nature laws are currently under review.
You can help protect species like the black-flanked rock-wallaby from extinction by advocating for stronger laws.


TAKE ACTION NOW


A day in the life of a poo counter
Black-flanked rock-wallaby scat count monitoring

By Ashleigh Chauvin


Why would you willingly spend a day counting poo you ask? Well for an ecologist this is often just part of the job and poo, or scat as we like to politely refer to it, is a highly useful tool for giving us all sorts of information about an animal and aid in its conservation. For our black-flanked rock-wallabies in the Central Wheatbelt of Western Australia, scat counts are an integral part of our recovery and conservation of this species.

Back in 2011, these little marsupials weren’t doing so well in the Wheatbelt, with the population at Nangeen Hill Nature Reserve almost becoming extinct. It was thanks to the diligent scat counting of volunteers that brought this crisis to WWF-Australia and DBCA’s (the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions) attention, leading to the construction of the predator-proof fence around Nangeen Hill NR, and nowadays the rock-wallabies are doing much better.

But the battle’s not over! Although the rock-wallabies at Nangeen Hill may be protected from feral predators such as cats and foxes by the large predator-proof fence, the other four Wheatbelt populations have no such protection and rely on other forms of feral predator control. Additionally, the black-flanked rock-wallabies of the Central Wheatbelt exist within tiny habitat ‘islands’ among a sea of cleared agricultural land. This leaves them even more vulnerable to extinction due to threats such as feral predators, habitat loss and degradation, disease, bushfires and climate change.

Protecting rock-wallabies from these threats is vital if we want to continue seeing this species recover - but we need to ensure the federal Government is also on our side. Since our national nature laws (The EPBC Act 1999) was established 20 years ago, over 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared. We can’t stand to lose more critical habitat for endangered species like the black-flanked rock-wallaby.

Right now, our country’s nature laws are undergoing review and we need to make sure they work to protect our native species.In the meantime, protecting this species from these threats makes our scat monitoring program even more valuable! Counting rock-wallaby scats in permanent plots is an easy, non-invasive way for us to get an idea of how their populations are faring and acts as an early warning system for any decline in population. After all, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The more rock-wallabies there are, the more scats there’ll be, and any noticeable change in this will be reason for concern.

So what does a day in the life of a rock-wallaby scat-counter look like? Firstly it involves setting off at around 7 am from Mundaring after collecting a couple of other volunteers to help out, a stop off to grab a coffee and snack from the famous Bakers Hill Pie Shop, and then we’re on our way into the heart of the Central Wheatbelt. Once we reach Kellerberrin, we turn off from the highway, driving between farmland. At around 10 am we’ll reach our first stop; Nangeen Hill Nature Reserve. Once we enter the predator-proof fence, closing the gate behind us, we drive down to the magnificent rocky outcrop and stop, hoping to catch a glimpse of the shy rock-wallabies. Nowadays, with the successful bounce-back of this population, you’re almost guaranteed to see these tiny marsupials bounding from rock to rock and scaling the huge impossibly-angled boulders with ease.

After an initial flurry of movement from the rock-wallabies, I often notice that they then begin to reappear, inquisitive as to what these strange animals are that have entered their home and soon become more at ease, sunning themselves on the granite rock. Then it’s back to work as we go to each of the established plots to count and record the number of rock-wallaby scats, while also recording those of kangaroos and rabbits, and completing a quick vegetation condition analysis to monitor the rock-wallaby’s food availability. While we’re here, we may even spot a beautiful wedge-tailed eagle or two soaring overhead, while various other birds such as the spiny-cheeked honeyeater, red-capped robin, and in the right season, rainbow bee-eaters, flit from bush to bush.


Two rock-wallabies on rocks at Nangeen Hill Nature Reserve © Ashleigh Chauvin

Spot the rock-wallabies! Two rock-wallabies sunning themselves on the rocks at Nangeen Hill NR


Then we’re off to the next reserve, locking the predator-proof fence behind us. Next on the list is Gundaring Nature Reserve, home to fewer rock-wallabies, but provides the most impressive display of wildflowers in the spring. If you’re lucky you may even see an echidna in search of tasty termites, or even the flash of a rock-wallaby up on the rocks. Next, it’s time to enter private land, driving between the paddocks to reach Sale’s Rock, where we’ll stop for our lunch break in a huge natural cave in the granite outcrop, looking out over the paddocks to Mt Stirling in the distance; our next stop.

At Mt Stirling, one of our scat-count plots requires a more adventurous hike through an extremely thick patch of jam trees (Acacia acuminate) that had sprung up years ago after a fire went through the outcrop. We’re rewarded at the end of the walk with one of our scat-count locations that exist within a seemingly small cave. But if you’re feeling adventurous and follow the cave to the side, it opens up into an even larger cave and a series of overhangs that follow the large rock along with amazing views of the landscape beyond and unique plant life growing out of tiny cracks in the rock.Our last stop is at the beautiful Mt Caroline Nature Reserve. This would have to be my favourite of the five reserves. It’s the largest reserve, containing two rocky peaks with a variety of vegetation types and species such as stands of Eucalyptus caesia (known as ‘Silver Princess’ in the garden variety), sandalwood, Grevillea petrophiloides subsp. magnifica or Pink Pokers grevillea (a subspecies unique to the region), and various orchids and everlastings in the spring time. If we’re feeling more adventurous, we might take a climb to the top of the main peak after completing our final scat counts as we did on my most recent trip out there.

Picking our way between the huge boulders, each uniquely shaped by years of weathering, we make our way to the top. Here we’re rewarded with panoramic views across the nature reserve and farmland beyond, with the Salt River running through what’s known as the Caroline Gap, with Nangeen Hill and Mt Stirling beyond. While exploring the top of the rock you may even be lucky enough to get a glimpse of a rock-wallaby shoot past you! It would be easy to spend a whole day out here just exploring the outcrop, but we still have a three-hour drive ahead of us back to Perth and so it’s time to get going. Driving out of the farmland, we drive down the gravel roads edged by towering salmon gums and back out onto the highway. After a quick pit stop at Tammin Roadhouse to grab some snacks for the trip home, we’re on our way back to Perth.



Australia’s nature laws are currently under review.
You can help protect species like the black-flanked rock-wallaby from extinction by advocating for stronger laws.

 

TAKE ACTION NOW



View from the top of one of the two peaks of Mt Caroline Nature Reserve © Ashleigh Chauvin

View from the top of one of the two peaks of Mt Caroline Nature Reserve


Every day out here is different with new things to discover. A day of counting poo may not sound very appealing to most people, however seeing the little rock-wallabies bounding effortlessly across the giant rocks while taking in the wildflowers, sweeping views and other wildlife out in the Central Wheatbelt, makes the field trip well worth it!

 

View from Mt Caroline Nature Reserve overlooking Salt River © Ashleigh Chauvin

View from the top of one of the two peaks of Mt Caroline Nature Reserve looking across the Salt River to Mt Stirling beyond

 

Mt Stirling Nature Reserve view from Sales Rock © Ashleigh Chauvin

View from Sales Rock across the expanse of cleared agricultural land to Mt Stirling Nature Reserve.

 

Before clearing, these two outcrops would have been connected by bushland, enabling rock-wallabies and other fauna to travel freely and safely between them, while today the Sales Rock and Mt Stirling rock-wallabies exist as two isolated individual populations.

 

View from the overhangs and series of caves at Mt Stirling Nature Reserve © Ashleigh Chauvin

View from the overhangs and series of caves at Mt Stirling Nature Reserve after climbing through the initial cave

 

Looking back at my volunteers just outside of the initial cave at Mt Stirling Nature Reserve © Ashleigh Chauvin

Same location as above, looking back at my volunteers just outside of the initial cave

 

Cave at Sales Rock, Mt Stirling Nature Reserve © Ashleigh Chauvin

The cave in which we have our lunch break at Sales Rock