Monday, December 30, 2013

December (Beaches and Bars)

December hasn't been my best month here. There is just something about being away for the holidays that makes a person lonely. It helps that the weather here is closer to Fourth of July sun than Christmas snow. But there are still Christmas lights and music everywhere you go.

One evening in early December, I walked out of my apartment and heard music coming from the park across the street. I wandered over to find a Christmas Caroling concert. Now, keep in mind that this was outdoors and it was over 80 degrees. The grass was covered with picnic blankets. Parents intently watched the caroling, occasionally singing along, while their children impatiently waited for balloon animals and ice cream. I watched the concert for a while, but left once little kids began singing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. It reminded me a bit too much of singing that song with my little sister Evelyn when she was a toddler. I stretched out on a bench far from the crowds and began reading. After a good half hour, a young teenage boy came up to the bench and shyly asked if I would go out on a date with him. He couldn't have been more than fourteen. I kindly informed him that I was much too old for that and continued reading as he walked away, as to not call too much attention to the hugely awkward moment that had just occurred. There is no way I look THAT young!

My roommate Hayley talked for weeks about getting a Christmas tree. She was working all day nearly every day, making it difficult to get to the store to buy one. There was no way we could get a real one with budget and time against us. I didn't have the money to spare for a tree. Last year I sold my own white tree in order to begin saving up for this trip. Eventually, we got one. I helped spread out the wire branches to make the tree look a bit more lively. Other than that, I left the decorating completely up to Hayley. She had that look of determination for perfection in her eyes that says, if you try to help me, I'll probably have to fix what you do anyway. She did, however, allow me the privilege of placing the star atop the tree. The most exciting part what the fact that I could easily reach the top of the tree.

As a Christmas present to her family, Hayley decided to give backpacks filled with useful items and presents to homeless people in Melbourne. That way the money she would have spent buying gifts for people who didn't want anything could be used to help people who might need it. I agreed to go with her for moral support. I felt like everyone around me thought I was a terrorist. Why is that lady holding so many full backpacks on a train? I was waiting for security to ask me to step aside for a random search at any moment. That moment never came. Apparently, it isn't concerning to Australians in the least to see someone carrying an excess of odd luggage into large public areas. Hayley and I stepped into the city determined to find homeless people. We found one in all of Melbourne. I stood back a bit while Hayley gave the backpack. I kept my distance mostly because I was a big fat chicken, nervous of what response Hayley might get. The man she gave it to seemed genuinely appreciative. He even dug out a Santa hat from the backpack to put atop his head as we left. We wandered around the city for a few hours looking for more homeless, but there were none to be found that day.

A few days later, after eyeing a Japanese language group online for some time, I finally got the nerve to go see what it was about. I loved taking Japanese in college, but haven't had much opportunity to practice since. Now I am in that horrible point of beginner language skills where I recognize words that I used to know, but can no longer remember what they mean. The group was meeting at a bar and grill. It was expected that each person would buy something from the restaurant during the meeting. Most people bought alcohol. I ordered a coke. My Japanese was rusty enough being sober. Thankfully, most of the group of thirty or so people were from Japan and wanted to practice English. There were definitely some uncomfortable language and cultural barriers, but the evening went pretty well. 

Hayley worked in the same mall that the bar and grill was in, so I met up with her and a couple of her friends after the event. We decided to all meet up at a dumpling shop in the nearby China Town. Hayley gave me confusing directions over the phone which I vaguely followed with the help of my phones GPS. You never realize how hard it is to understand someone's accent until they are listing oddly named streets for you to find. I finally located the shop in a dark ally way, which is where all the best places in Melbourne seem to be found. Inside I found my group being told that they only had five more minutes until they would have to order or leave. I quickly sat down and chose my order of veggie noodles. (Actually the waiter chose for me because I was taking too long.) They were so good! For some reason, everyone here seems to really like wine. I don't. Near the end of the meal, the owner of the place began filling and refilling everyone's glass with wine to get us to leave faster. I chugged down my tiny portion and chased it with coke so we could head out.  

We went farther down the ally to an outdoor bar of sorts.There was music, but I wasn't sure if people were dancing badly to it or swaying uncontrollably from their own drunkenness. I went to use the restroom and found myself in a room wallpapered with little disturbing and trippy looking pieces of art. We didn't stay there long. Instead, we moved to a bar a few blocks away. This one was indoors, with coherent people and the expected artwork of beer logos. We set up a pool table and began playing, occasionally stopping to watch karaoke. Even though I've never played a full game of pool in my life before that point, I won the game! Hopefully, this was due to the natural skill I possess and not the large amount of wine everyone else consumed. Before leaving, we all sang a lovely out of tune version of "Tonight (We Are Young)" which Hayley snapchatted halfway through while on stage. Well done, Hayley.

Several nights later, I met up with a Japanese girl from the language exchange group. I had mentioned at the group that I was thinking of going to a Nightmare Before Christmas Party I had heard about. She was interested so I invited her along. I later discovered that she originally thought I had invited her to see the movie. She was a great sport finding out that it was a costume party in a bar. I wore a purple and black outfit with my Nightmare Before Christmas socks. It wasn't a costume, but at least went with the theme a bit. Not everyone dressed up, but many did. We were surrounded by Sweeny Todd, Edward Scissorhands, the Mad Hatter, the Pincushion Lady, the Cheshire Cat, and even Batman and Robin. The place was packed and most of the night was spent talking to other travelers and dancing. One guy tried to tell me that we were basically from the same place because he was from Columbia. I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Most conversations went like this... Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you do? Oh, you like animals! Look at all these pictures of my dog! I swear that happened with nearly every person in the building, except for one rude guy who claimed that the animals I've worked with aren't dangerous enough to be considered wild animals. I also wasn't sure how to respond to this.

Throughout the month I went to the beach whenever possible. I had a great misfortune of always arriving as the weather changed from beautiful to horrible. At least when it rained there weren't as many flies. It seems like there are flies no matter where you go, but they are the worst near beaches. Imagine twenty flies all bound and determined to fly into your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears at once. Picture them doing this constantly for hours on end and only getting more persistent with each swat at them. It's torture. Dispite the annoyance of flies, the beaches are beautiful. Each looks the same as the next with few exceptions. Brighton Beach was one of those exceptions. The shore is lined with colorfully painted houses. The rocks along the edges are unique to anything I've seen before, ranging from porous to slippery. I took R2D2 along but the hot weather here is slowly smearing his colors.

About halfway through the month, I decided to go to an ugly sweater party by a group of Americans. (The same group I had dinner with on thanksgiving.) Australians don't have ugly sweater competitions, as December is basically their June. I didn't own an ugly sweater and didn't feel like it was worth buying one for this single occasion. This event was on the beach. There is something I am slowly coming to realize about gatherings in Australia. They are pretty much always at either a bar or a beach. Even on the beach in Aussie summer, it proved to be perfect sweater weather. The waves crashed icy salt water as the wind picked up speed around us. I completely guessed where the group might be, which was proven correct with the sight of a giant American flag waving in the cold wind. Most of the group I had already met at Thanksgiving. I introduced myself to the few new people and offered some gluten-free snickerdoodles made the night before. (My roommates are dietary weirdos, but I feel it is important that every person in the world has the opportunity to taste the the deliciousness of a snickerdoodle, even if it is a slightly mutilated version of the recipe.) While most of the group had, like myself, decided against ugly sweaters, a few brave souls went for it. And boy, were their sweaters fantastically hideous! Great work you all! At some point in the afternoon, sunburns began to show on the skin of my fellow Americans. I distinctly remember thinking about how they must have very fair skin to burn so easily in such cold and overcast weather. I thought about offering up the sunblock in my purse, but then saw that they already had some out for people to use. I didn't even stop for a second the wonder whether I should be wearing some myself. (The picture was taken when the sun came out a bit.)

A few days later, I began my first official petsitting opportunity, accompanied by a face that closely matched the color of Elmo's. Petsitting is the perfect travel method for me. I get to stay in beautiful homes for free and take care of pets of families on vacation. It is a win on all sides! I decided to start petsitting in Melbourne, while I still have an apartment to live in between sits. This would help me grow some references and meet more people within Australia. The first person to contact me was an American lady living about 40 minutes away from my apartment. She had a black and white dog by the name of Harry. Harry took to me right away. He was so cuddly, and I loved it! A retired couple had been watching Harry for a couple weeks, but now had to go to their next housesit in Sydney. I spend my first day at the house with the couple. They had sold their own house four years ago and had been traveling around the country ever since, relying solely on house and pet sitting. They loaded me up with advice on every do and don't you could imagine for traveling based on their experiences. It was all amazingly helpful and it was so sweet of them to take such an interest. They even drove me to the next town over to see more of the area. Unfortunately, the entire time they saw me my face felt like a marshmallow being pushed much too close to a hot fire. I slathered it with aloe, moisturizer, vinegar, insect bite numbing gel, and even mustard on the really bad parts as I became more desperate. (The internet told me that it was a good idea! wasn't.) I looked like a fool when we went outside. I wore so much sunblock that my non-burnt skin looked three shades paler. I wore long sleeves dispite the hot weather, and a hat to block the sun from my face. Since the hat rubbed painfully across my forehead, I propped it high on my head, just at the hairline, giving my forehead a never ending appearance. A few days after the couple left, the sunburn finally disappeared, leaving a serious respect for the Australian sun. 

Harry and I settled into a great routine, mostly consisting of daytime tv, tug of war, and walks. There was a shopping center close by to get food and basics. I'm sure I've mentioned this in previous blogs, but I am getting really good at walking! In America I would go to the grocery store once or twice a month. I would drive there and back, only carrying groceries from the garage to the refrigerator. In Australia I have to walk to the store, buy a small amount of food, and carry it all the way home. This is repeated every day or two. I never realized how much I didn't walk in the States until I had to walk everywhere in Australia. When I needed to get to the city, I had to walk to the shopping center, take a bus to the train station, and a train into the city. Two busses stopped at the shopping center. One took me to the closest train station so I always took that one. Eventually I learned that the other bus took me to a train station closer to the city and saved me a load of time. This was discovered through the happy accident of getting on the wrong bus. 

On Christmas Day I awoke to a broken ipad. It was running slowly, and kept crashing each app that I opened, eventually giving me a blank screen. I tried to log back in and it told me my passcode was incorrect. I knew it was correct. The screen stopped responding at all less than an hour after I began using the ipad. I tried several times to shut down and do a hard restart, but the ipad was completely unresponsive. This was devastatingly disappointing since I use the ipad primarily to communicate with family. I wanted to see everyone and hear about all the presents they recieved, but I had no way of doing that. I had planned to meet a group of Christmas Orphans (travelers with no family or friends around) at the beach in the afternoon, and I decided it was best to stick to that plan. Upon getting on the bus, I discovered that my phone was dead. I had charged it all night, but apparently I never turned on the outlet/powerpoint, so it never charged at all. It was too late to turn around. I continued to the beach and began searching for the group. While the beach is a common meetup spot on any warm day, it is THE place to go on Christmas. It was packed! After a while of having no luck locating the group, I decided to aim my search toward finding a phone charger. This search involved going to two grocery stores, two phone stores, and one convenience store, only the last of which was open. I browsed the store for a phone charger to no avail. In desperation, I asked the clerk if they had any. They had one chager left, but it was for a car. Zero help to me. I returned to the beach in search of the group once more. This time I began going up to each large group I saw and asking if they were the group I was trying to find. None of them were. After a couple hours, it was time to go back. On the night of Christmas Eve I had ordered two pizzas with a good deal from Dominos. I returned to the house, let Harry cuddle under the blankets, and began watching the Christmas TV movie of "Jaws" while stuffing my face with left over pizza. After such a bad day, there couldn't have been a better movie to watch.

The next day, I walked three miles uphill to a large Apple store. I would've taken a bus, however, that one bus had switched its route for that one and only day. Upon walking into the store, the employee did a hard reset on my ipad and it worked beautifully. It was the same exact thing I had already tried without success. I swear the employees there have some secret nobody else knows to make the rest of the world look incredibly stupid when trying to fix their technology. I never got to see any of my family on Christmas, which was quite difficult, but at least everything was working once again. I also lost around half of my pictures, so some of my blogs may be short of visual proof.

At least once a week, I would visit my apartment to make sure everything was going well. Shortly after Christmas, I checked my mail to see a Christmas card. I cheerfully opened it to see who had written me. Inside were the words "To dear Chris, Bridget, and Max, Love & Best Wishes from Ricky and Geoff XX" I don't know who Ricky and Geoff are, but I would like to say thank you for the lovely card! The next day I recieved a second Christmas card which was actually meant for me. It was from Annie and Jess, the couple I stayed with when I first came to Melbourne. Thank you for the card! It was very sweet!

For New Years, I decided to go to a couch surfers event on the beach. Before I begin, let me clarify the term couch surfers. When I first told my mom about this, she pictured a group of overwieght people who sit on their couches 24/7 watching tv. When I told my dad of this event, he pictured people literally surfing on couches in the ocean waves. In reality, couch surfers are people who travel by sleeping on the couches, or occasionally in spare bedrooms, of other people who are usually couch surfers themselves. I joined this group as another option for free housing if needed. There was a strict no alcohol policy on the beach so it was rather clear of people. The large group was easy to spot, unlike it had been for the Christmas event. I arrived in the early evening and sat in a large circle of people. Everyone introduced themselves and where they were from: France, Hungary, America, Spain, Australia, Thialand, etc. There were a couple countries I had never heard of and could hardly pronounce, but I tried not to call too much attention to those details. Before much conversation occurred, a man walked up and began selling pot to a couple people. The guy from France and I both decided it was a good time to join a different circle. I was told I was "one of the guys" by an Asian Australian and his friend from England. I had a conversation with an inebriated guy from Sweden about the ignorance of Americans. I watched a heated mini chess game between a man from France and a couple from England. A German girl sitting beside me shrieked each time a large beach ball came near her. I'm not sure what it would have done besides possibly mess up her hair. As it began getting a bit darker the group dissipated to different places throughout the city. Some people went to a rooftop party while most went to a park that was supposed to have a lot going on that night. The Asian Australian decided that I was part of his group along with his English friend and every other Asain person at the event, including an Asian guy from America, a Vietnamese/Irish Australian girl, and her friend. The park was much farther away than expected. When we got there, we realized that it was a DJ, several hundred drunk people, and not much else. We watched the fireworks from a distance and then left the park. The taxis were packed so we walked back to the city, had some icky pineapple pizza, and called it a night. 

I don't feel like I did much in December, but looking back on it, I guess I did do quite a bit. I'm growing tired of Melbourne and have seen most of the sights here, so I am planning to travel to Sydney by March. In January, I'll take a little Birthday break to see my aunt and cousin in Hawaii, before returning to Australia to continue travels. 

Btw, these are my roommates... Kev, Lorna, and Hayley

Friday, December 6, 2013

Red Fox Research at the Otways

After visiting Melbourne Zoo, Megan got in touch with a zoo reproductive biologist by the name of Marissa to see if there were more opportunities for me. Marissa responded with with a short list of PhD students needing volunteers to help with their research projects on local wildlife. The first name on the list was Bron. (That is short for Bronwyn, and it's not an uncommon girls name here apparently.) Bron, along with fellow PHD student Ray, was studying the effects of fire on predator movement. She said that studies on small mammal populations decreasing after fires often suggested that fires caused less forest understory, increasing predation. She concentrated specifically on the invasive red fox. To be honest, there aren't all that many predators around here to choose from. (Side note: Turns out that red fox are originally from Europe and are not truly endemic to the US either.)

I sent an email to Bron stating my interest in assisting with the project and soon recieved a response giving details of her next trip. The first few days of the trip fell on Thanksgiving. I had already agreed to volunteer with processing more microbats Thanksgiving afternoon, and I had plans to go to an American Thanksgiving potluck. Instead of helping with the fox research, I stayed and participated in what was already planned. I will tell more about the bat research in a later blog entry. The potluck, however, was wonderful. Many people showed up and it was amazing to understand what everyone was saying as they were saying it. I'm getting better with Australian lingo, but it still takes effort and memorization. For example, "You can put the eskie in the ute tray." means "You can put the cooler in the truck bed." The food wasn't anywhere near the same as I'm used to, but it was a good attempt. There were many substitutes like turkey legs and chicken when nobody could find a full turkey. I'm glad I stayed. 

After Thanksgiving, I emailed Bron and let her know that I was now free to come help if she still needed it. She had me fill out a quick volunteer form and then sent me a list of items to bring and information for the train I needed to be on. This was the list I was given.

Though I wasn't very familiar with the terms jumper, gaiters, beanie, torch, or bathers, they were all simple enough to figure out. The trouble was finding them! If you'll remember, I didn't come to Australia with very much stuff. While I love my clothes, I don't care one bit if they get dirty. That's what washing machines are for. Field clothes and indoor clothes- check. I already had an extra set of sheets, a pillow, a towel, toiletries, water, books, and a bathing suit. Those were all check. My train was supposed to leave downtown at 4pm, so I spent the morning shopping for the items I didn't have. I tried K-Mart first. None of their boots fit me, adult ones were too big and kids ones were too small. I searched the store, but there were no raincoats. I ended up leaving with just a sleeping bag. My search continued in all the main shopping areas I could think of, but I couldn't find any waterproof clothes or any comfortable boots. At the last minute, I went into a small shop to buy a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. My toms would have to work for shoes. At least they were comfortable. And I'm not too prideful to wear a garbage bag if it keeps me dry. The flashlight and warm hat were low priority and got skipped. 

The train station I was to go to was Birregurra. My pronunciation of the town was way off, so I wrote it on my iPhone notepad. That way, whenever I needed to tell someone where I was going, I could just show them the town name instead of having to repeat incorrect variations of the word until they understood what I was trying to say. Upon arriving to the station, I immediately went to the customer service desk to ask what to do. The man looked at me with confusion for a moment and then told me that I was at the wrong desk, to go to the one downstairs. The downstairs desk was for V-line, a greater Victoria transit system. The lady at the desk asked me if I had a reservation. I explained that I didn't think so, but had no idea what I was doing. I just needed to go to this *pointed to iphone* station and I was to leave at 4pm. She assisted me in buying the ticket and directed me to my platform. The train's schedule had been slightly altered. I was to take the train to Geelong, and then a coach bus to Birregurra. My arrival time was virtually the same. The train had soft, cushy, blue velvet seats in which I struggled to stay awake. The train was to go much farther than my destination. Falling asleep could mean the difference between fox tracking and desert wandering. Thankfully, I managed to make my way to the bus and to my destination. Bron picked me up near the bus stop and we grabbed some pizza and coke on the way out of town. (PS-Pineapple does not belong on pizza. Fried eggs, maybe. Pineapple, no.)

Bron explained that my timing was perfect. Her last volunteer had to leave that same day. It was just me and her until Ray would arrive sometime in the next couple days. Most of the work required two people. She let me borrow an extra pair of her shoes for setting traps so there wouldn't be as many human smells tracked around the area. We drove through the woods, exiting the truck every few minutes to check traps. Bron taught me how to mark and find the traps using her GPS and then put me in charge of doing that for all of them. It took Bron pointing out several for me to learn what they looked like. Fox tend to use human made paths to move around, usually roads and hiking trails. Flat, humane foothold traps were placed along trails, not far from roads. They were well hidden, with the only identifiable feature being an oddly smooth circle of dirt. Signs along the trail warned hikers of the traps and told of the study being conducted. None of the traps had been triggered, and Bron let me know that it is common to only catch one or two in a ten day period. Fox are smart and won't go in live box traps at all. This was the most reliable way to catch them, but it still wasn't easy.

We returned to the house and made a large pot of chicken soup for the next few days. Bron spent the remainer of the evening going through radio collars, programming frequencies. I ate and went to bed. We each had our own room with a single mattress. It looked nearly identical to my bedroom at Moonee Ponds- empty. It was very difficult to fall asleep. The house was right on the edge of the woods, so we were surrounded by wildlife. My room buzzed with mosquitoes and flies. Outside, I could hear possum calls, sounding like a mix between a cat hiss and a man breathing deeply, with the occational sound of a kookaburra's cackling laughter.

^ the back yard ^

The second day my alarm went off at 6:00am. Soon after, Ray arrived. He was tall with a thick beard. As we left the house we saw a flock of nearly twenty sulphur-crested cockatoos (the white and yellow ones) along the edge of the woods. We all went to check the traps, and then began plotting where new ones should be set. The set up process is more involved than I expected. To begin, you have to pick a trap and test the amount of pressure needed to make it go off. Sounds easy. The trap is a clamp with rings on either side keeping it closed. These rings are very tight. The easiest way to open the trap is to step on either ring and pry it open with your hands, locking it into an open position. We all wore gloves to keep away human smells. It takes balance to step on both rings. I didn't fall, but there were a few close calls. At one point, I tried to just do it all using my hands. I admitted their way was better after both gloves became stuck in the trap and I had to be pried out. Not my best moment.  Afterwards, they informed me that twice before people on this trip had gotten leaches stuck on their eyes while setting trap. Yes, you read that right. Leaches. On your eye! Apparently leaches are pretty common here and when the trap goes off, it flicks any leaches on it into the face. They reassured me that the leaches would fall off after a half hour or so. I decided to wear sunglasses for setting traps from then on.

Side note- while writing this entry at the park across the street, a giant spider tried to attack me. I calmly escaped without alarming any children. Personal success! (Spiders are scarier in Australia.) Speaking of spiders, this is one that I found on the truck door!

Scary looking, right?!

After setting the traps, making them go off to test weight, setting them, testing weight again, and then finally setting them a third time, they could be planted to catch fox. First, I had to dig a large hole. At the back end of the hole, I had to use a pole and hammer to dig a skinny, deep hole to put bait in. The trap was placed in the large hole, and gently packed over with dirt repeatedly until it couldn't be seen. We had two types of bait, sausage (called snag?) and road kill rabbit. They reeked. We spread their juices around the area and stuffed pieces down the long hole. The flies were already swarming us, but now they were really swarming. The flies here are the kind that fly around your face and only become more persistent when you swat at them. Before finishing, we blocked the sides of the traps so macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) wouldn't accidentally hop on them. We camouflaged the area as best as possible, put up signs, and left. I don't know how many we set, but it took several hours. 

^ This is the type of area we put most of the traps. ^

Ray stayed to set more traps further in the woods while Bron and I went to track down previously caught fox. Once fox were caught, radio collars were put on them. These collars cost the researchers thousands of dollars. Once the foxes were released, the collars monitored where they went, and eventually, their overall territory, which could later be compared to forest burnings. Bron had a large homemade antenna to pick up the collars' signals. She drove the car while I held on to the atenna through the car window. We did this so many times that by the end of the trip my left hand was swollen and red. (Remember, passengers are on the left side.) The antenna was connected to a device that was tuned to the specific individual fox collar we were looking for. As we drove, we listened for a subtle beep amid never ending white noise. That evening we found one fox. We exited the truck as soon as the beep sounded, grabbed a smaller antenna, and headed into the woods. Occasionally, we would lose the signal again and have to jump back into the truck. This time however, we continued on the signal until it was close enough to pick up with the smallest antenna. This antenna connected to the laptop computer we brought with us. I stood at the highest point until it picked up the signal, taking approximately two minutes. The information needed was downloaded through that antenna and into the computer. After everything was saved, we headed back out to find more fox. 

There were macropods everywhere! The forest was thick, so you didn't see them until they were close. Like deer, as soon as they saw you move, they were gone! There were three species within the woods: grey kangaroo, red necked wallaby, and swamp wallaby. The swamp wallaby was they only one I could easily identify since it was jet black. I could always anticipate a macropod approaching by the sound of giant footsteps. Thump, thump, thump, thump, wallaby! In the morning we would occasionally see some outside bouncing around in the yard. They remind me so much of the character Tigger.

The next day we spent the better part of the light, driving around listening for a beep. Waking up at 6am and then listening to white noise for hours on end makes staying awake the hardest thing in the world! I'm sure Bron heard me snore a few times, but I always snapped back awake. We took all our breaks. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the house, but morning and afternoon teas were always in the woods. Bron and Ray were comfortable peeing in the woods. I was happy to hold my bladder until meal times. 

While driving in the afternoon, Brom suddenly stopped the car and informed me that there was a lizard in the middle of the road. We got out of the car. I was obviously a touch more excited about this interruption than she was. It was a blue-tongued skink. We moved him out of the road, with a super quick photo op, and continued our white noise listening.

Now, I'm not remembering this all in the correct order because my shirts are different in the pictures, but it doesn't much matter. It all blurred together anyway. One of the afternoons, Bron was running low on fuel and needed to grab some more groceries. While she was going to the "petrol station and supa" she suggested I visit the beach. Oh, was that a welcome suggestion! The beach was beautiful, tied with Puerto Rico for best beach I've ever seen. I left my shoes in the grass and spent every moment with my feet in the warm ocean water. This was also one of the only places I had found which had cell phone reception. I used all my time to contact family and let them know that I was still alive. (Okay, I might've sent a few pictures of the beach to my dear loved ones in the coldest part of the country, you know, to help them feel a bit warmer. Hehe!) 

On the last evening, we still had not tracked down one specific collared fox. This fox had been caught just over a week previously, but hadn't been found since, Bron and Ray decided that Bron and I should walk over 10 miles down an abandoned road to see if she was there. Ray would stay behind and set more traps. So that is what we did. Thankfully, there were many beautiful animals to keep me going along. There were birds everywhere. Cockatoos screeched so loudly it made me wonder why anyone would want them as pets! Gang-Gangs and Galahs flew by, both parrots with greyish bodies and dull red heads. The Crimson Rosella was by for the most noticeable. They were everywhere and so colorful that they were impossible to miss. As juveniles, they are bright green and yellow. As they age, they slowly turn bright red and blue. During the transformation, they are just a blinding rainbow of color! 

At approximately the halfway point we spotted a koala running through the woods toward a tree. Yes, it was on the ground running, in a funny koala sort of way. As it reached the tree it began calling out with the most unexpected voice. I kid you not; this koala had the voice of a lion! It quickly climbed halfway up the tree and continued its call. I mentioned in my last blog about how koalas are more agile than I expected. Well, they continue to surprise me!

Little observation: most of the trees here look like they are sanded down. There is hardly any noticeable bark in the woods. There are times when I think I'm looking at bark, but it turns out to be something growing on the tree instead.

We continued walking and I swear it was up hill almost the entire rest of the walk. My butt muscles have only hurt worse when I went roller skating in a concrete ring. It was still fun. At one point we reached a very pretty fresh water area with a creek and Bron took my picture with the antenna we were using to track the fox. She mentioned that there might be a platypus around there, but we couldn't find it. Later I wondered if there also could have been crocodiles. Note to self: research where crocodiles live more thoroughly! 

^ This is me after hiking for over three hours. ^

We did not find the signal of a single fox the whole hike. On the way back to the house we did see three foxes run by the truck. None of them had radio collars, and they disappeared into the woods quickly. By the time we got back, I couldn't wait to take a shower. I had been dreading it, but I no longer cared. You see, this house has a creepy shower. How so? Well, there this one way mirror. To the person in the shower, there is a mirror. For someone in the dining room, there is a window looking straight into the shower. Why anyone would build it that way, I don't know. Thankfully, they had a paper curtain on the window side, with a dry erase board propped over it. Ray wasn't home yet, and Bron was on the front porch looking at data, so I took the speediest shower ever. Come to think of it, there were signs all over the house about water conservation. Maybe the builder thought "Let's make a creepy one way mirrored shower so nobody will waste extra time in there!"

The next day, Bron was more determined than ever to find the missing fox. She decided we needed to hike into thicker parts of the woods which had not been burned for many years. These were areas covered in fern trees. These ferns ranged from five to ten feet tall. Now, see the fern closest to me in the picture above? Notice how the fronds (leaves) decay on the bottom and new fronds grow from the top. This is the same for the fern trees, but there are hundreds of them snuggled tightly together. I would think that I was walking on solid ground and then realize that I was actually walking on three feet of decaying fern fronds! It was nearly impossible to tell. Everything was so thick that a lot of attention had to be given to not falling. It rained a little, making everything slippery, but the rain was welcome to help cool off. Once again, we couldn't find the fox. Hopefully they will track her down soon. They can't study her movements otherwise. Bron and Ray were both certain that it was just a matter of looking for her in the wrong places.

By the end of my time there, I still had not caught a fox, but I did learn a lot about the animals, how to set traps, how to use a wide variety of tracking equipment, and that I am severely out of shape. In addition, I left with three mosquitoes bites on the palm of my hand, along with everywhere else on my body, but no leaches! I'm so happy I went, but I'm not quite sure I'd do it again. I don't believe a PhD in field work is in my future. That peeing outside thing just isn't for me. 

Bron called the train station and made a reservation for me. She said I could just pay on the train for my ticket. Once I got on the train, a man approached for ticket money. I asked if he would take my American visa card. He said no. Australian visa card? No. Check? No. Myki? No. American dollars? No. The only currency I didn't have on me was the only one he accepted. He was very nice though and said he'd go talk to the conductor and figure something out for me. He never returned. It was around a two hour trip. He had plenty of time to come back, but he didn't. I got off the train that should've cost me quite a bit without paying a thing. I felt like a criminal! Thankfully, I made it home without being hunted down by the police. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Melbourne Zoo

 Melbourne Zoo is located in Royal Park, the closest zoo in relation to my apartment. It is a large and beautiful zoo with a sizable collection of native animals, which is dwarfed by nearby zoos, but still worth seeing. They keep local animals partly for education, but mostly for tourists. With the help of a few people at Como Zoo, Judie in particular, I was able to get in touch with a lovely zookeeper here named Megan. Thanks to her, I was able to come and spend a couple days meeting Aussie Bush keepers and learning about their animals. It was such a treat!

There was a lot of information to take in while I visited the zoo. I was unfamiliar with many Australian names of keepers, so undoubtedly have some of them wrong. Please let me know if you notice any obvious mistakes made in this blog entry. 

The first day began with me following Megan as she did the last of her morning duties. She cleaned out the cage of a beautiful tree kangaroo who happily bounced around tree branches as she raked the dirt below him. I read an article about tree kangaroos which described them as marsupial monkeys, for they are highly agile, arboreal creatures. She coaxed him lower with an avocodo to get his weight and then left him to enjoy the messy meal.

Close to the tree kangaroo was the back size of the wombat exhibit. Wombats are much larger than I had pictured. My best description would be a sizable pig, with muscles of a pit bull, and fur of a chinchilla. However, they are marsupials with pouches. Unlike most marsupials, their pouches face backwards so the babies won't be bombarded with dirt while their mommas dig burrows. One wombat in the zoo's collection was very protective of his area. For keeper safety he was lured into a large wood box when anyone needed to get into the exhibit. Only problem was he chewed his way out of the box! When I visited, they had begun using a larger carnivore box, with metal designed to hold big cats. It was working for the moment. The other wombats were fine to be around people.

After this, Megan loaded many large tree branches into her buggy (golf cart) and headed over to the koalas to give a keeper talk about them. She quickly cleaned the exhibit, switched out the old branches for new ones, and started the talk. Koalas occur naturally throughout much of the eastern coast of Australia. They are closest relatives to wombats, both having backward pouches. Koalas can carry Chlamydia, often causing infertility and sometimes eyesight loss. I always pictured koalas like a marsupial sloth given how much energy must be spent on digestion, but they are quite agile. They can jump from branch to branch without much effort at all. 

At this point, Megan introduced me to Norman, an invertebrate keeper. All of the bugs in his collection could be found naturally in Australia. One species of stick insect was especially notable, The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect (Dryococelus australis). This species was last seen in the early 1920s, when black rats were brought by boat to the remote habitat on Lord Howe Island, off of Sydney on the east coast. The invasive rats completely wiped out the endemic stick insects and they became officially extinct. It wasn't until 2001 that live specimens were found and captured on the volcanic rocky outcrop known as Ball's Pyramid approximately 15 miles from LHI. Two pairs were brought back from the tiny population of 20-30 individuals fround to exist. One pair went to Sydney, the other to Melbourne. Melbourne Zoo was the first to breed them and now has quite the collection. 

Just after hatching, the young are kept in medium sized, open air terrariums within a long greenhouse type tent. They are very small and bright green. Due to their color and size they are diurnal, eating leaves of their favorite plant during the day. As they get older and molt, they change into a darker color no longer allowing them to blend into the leaves. This causes a switch in activity, making them fully nocturnal. At such point the stick insects are moved to a different greenhouse void of individual cages. They are given wood boxes to use during the day and small plants to nibble on throughout the night. There are also buckets of sand for egg laying. The eggs are unidentifiable from a small seed to an untrained eye. I couldn't tell the difference at all. The eggs are kept in small, lidded, plastic cups until they are hatched.

The government of New South Wales (the state which Sydney is in) plans to eradicate the black rats over the next several years. At which point, the Melbourne Zoo population will be reintroduced to Lord Howe Island. Here are a few videos that show you the same areas I visited while there.

Video of documentarian Sir Attenborough visiting Butterfly House and LHISI at Melbourne Zoo.

Video of a man visiting the breeding and housing area for the LHISI at Melbourne Zoo.

After a full tour of the stick insects, Norman brought me to another giant greenhouse tent. All around were small potted plants. Each plant was a different species, and each plant species had its own unique caterpillar munching on it. The plants were all standing free within the tent, but the edges of the room were lined with open air terrariums. This was where the newly formed chrysalises were kept until the butterflies emerged. Each day the butterflies were caught and brought into the butterfly house. The butterfly house is a beautiful tropical room filled with native butterfly species. The potted trees are hidden within the room for butterflies to lay their eggs on. Each week or so there trees get rotated back into the greenhouse to begin a new cycle.

Before leaving the invertebrate area, Norman wanted to show me one last thing. He had me hold out my hands, and on them he placed a Giant Burrowing Cochroach. It's legs were covered in sharp spikes for digging. The one I held, Norman explained, was a mother. He lifted up some substrate to show many smaller versions of what was in my hands. GBCs are unique in that they give birth to live young and then continue to care for them for months. They eat mostly leaf litter and are native to Queensland (North-East Australia.) I placed the cochroach back into her terrarium, thanked Norman, and left with Megan to to find Sheila.

Sheila was a large carnivore keeper that offered to let me visit the Sumatran tigers. This is the only animal I saw which cannot be found in Australia. There were three tigers behind-the-scenes, all siblings. The female was currently being separated from her brothers due to them entering breeding age. The tigers all had lovely exhibits, though not as large as the keepers would like. The tigers seemed fully content and calm. Shelia took some deserved pride in explaining how she has never seen tigers so naturally content or at such healthy weights as hers. The female walked up to the fence to greet Shelia who responded with a quick pet. All three tigers were born at the zoo. Sheila explained how the zoo only feeds the cats fully feathered, furred, and boned meat. This gives them much more enrichment than raw cleaned meats, sometimes taking hours to finish a meal rather than seconds with the alternative. In addition, they recycle a lot of tree branches from other exhibits, such at koalas, as well as incorporate various enrichment toys.

As I was watching the tiger, being careful to keep a foots distance, Sheila asked me if I'd like to bottle feed her. I was shocked that I would be allowed to do that, but jumped at the opportunity.  Shelia left and soon returned with a large syringe specially made for this sort of thing. The tiger knew the drill. She waited, eagerly rubbing her face along the fence in front of me. I pressed the syringe through the fence holes and slowly let it drip out milk. She lapped it up quickly. When I was done, we had a closer look at the boys and then left with a thank you to Sheila. 

After seeing the tigers, Megan thought I might like to see some monotremes (egg laying mammals), which of course, I did! I followed as she prepared food for the platypus. It's food consisted of crustaceans, blood worms, and small fish. These were dumped into an approximate 40 gallon aquarium. The aquarium connected to a long wood box. Megan went to the far end of the box and opened the lid. Inside there was a second, smaller wood box with bedding materials inside. She opened the second box, and I was able to catch a glimpse of the platypus as it ran out into the far end of the large box, away from our view. 

Platypuses (always thought it was platypi, but all of my books say platypuses) are mostly nocturnal, as night is when they go looking for food. Looking isn't quite the right term however, because they don't hunt with their sight. Instead, they have electroreceptors within their bill that pick up the slight electricity produced by their prey.  Female platypuses build burrows and incubate their eggs. They have no pouches or nipples, but do produce milk through two ducts on their belly. Male platypuses produce poison through spurs on their hind legs. It's like platypuses are Gods left overs after making all the other animals. Weird stuff.

The platypus just wanted darkness so he could sleep and wasn't interested in his food at all, so we let him be and went over to see the echidna, who was housed in an exhibit with some tree kangaroos. Upon walking into the exhibit the echidna began to follow me around, sniffing my shoes. It had a small yellow band around a single spike on it's back for identification. Echidnas are insectivores. They have no teeth, but instead use a sicky tongue to lap up food. I expected them to look a lot like porcupines, but they look more like a mix between an anteater and a hedgehog. Their backs are covered with fur as well as spikes. While echidnas are monotremes like platypuses, they do create a pseudo pouch by contracting abdomen muscles around their single egg. The baby, aka "puggle," will stay attached to its mother until it begins growing its own spikes. When this happens, it will be moved into a burrow to stay for the remainer of its youth.

Megan lured the tree kangaroo down with an avocado half for a picture. It was no work to get the echidna to come over since he was now sniffing at the bottom of my pants leg. Very curious animal! The tree kangaroo grabbed his treat and then sat with his back turned away from the camera. As soon as he looked over, the echidna had just lost interest. Thankfully, I got one picture. 

Now, I can't remember the name of the last keeper I met that day. I want to say his name was Pete, but that may be because he simply looked like a Pete to me. He generously let me follow him as he feed the kangaroos, wallabies, and emu. By this time, I was tiring from the very full day and I kept accidentally calling the emus ostriches. I do know the difference, but it made me feel like a fool. Despite my words refusal to cooperate, it was great to be so close to all these native animals! This was an open exhibit that the public could walk through, sometimes even petting the animals. 

Before leaving I got a quick look at a cassowary, some Asian elephants, and a group of Rothchild giraffes. I had spent the entire day at the zoo and was quite tired from trying to learn and remember so many new things, in addition to the excitement of the amazing generosity I recieved. I left the zoo and returned home immediately. Upon arriving home, I fell asleep, only to wake up in the middle of the night. At noon, I finally woke up from a horrible nights sleep. I had been invited to come see more at the zoo that I had missed the previous day. I made it to the zoo at 2pm; not as much time as I would have liked, but at least I was well rested. 

Megan met me by the giraffes and led me over to Ang, who was currently working on cleaning the bandicoot cages. Eastern Barred Bandicoots are a critically endangered species in the state of Victoria. (That's the state I'm in.) Melbourne Zoo is part of the recovery program, breeding and releasing them to help with population stability. The bandicoots are not on exhibit, but are kept In large identical cages side by side. It slightly resembles a horse stables. Bandicoots are nocturnal, so I didn't get to see any, but it was still quite nice to learn more about them and see how they are kept. In pictures, they vaguely look like rats with especially long noses.

While walking back to take a short break with the keepers, Ang mentioned that he was a music fan. He was interested about the fact that I grew up right outside of Nashville and was delighted to find out that I was his six degrees of separation from Jimmy Buffet. Apparently several of the zookeepers are huge fans, playing his songs every day in the food prep room. One keeper even emailed me a video of their band singing a cover. 

After a quick "morning tea" (they have morning and afternoon teas here), Ang took me to see the aviaries. They were pretty incredible! The great flight aviary is a long raised pathway under a dome. It slowly transitions through three Australian biomes with the greatest diversity of birds: woodland, wetland, and rainforest. All of the birds were native and it was quite funny to see so many American "pet store" birds flying around. Ang kindly named each one as we saw it, but I could one retain a few species names. My favorite was the Satin Bowerbird, a blackish-blue bird, which was building a small bower (nest) on the ground and just beginning to decorate it with blue items it found within the aviary.

After the great flight aviary, he took me around to see the other many native aviaries within the zoo. We also passed by a Tasmanian Devil exhibit with the Tassy running all around. After going through a finch aviary, and seeing a kookaburra, we came to an aviary with a noticeably different bird inside. It was bright yellow with some brown and black markings, but what was noticeable were the tuffs of feathers coming from its cheeks. It looked like it had sideways horns off of its face. This was the Yellow-Tuffed Honeyeater. 

The zoo was about to close, so we headed back to the keeper break room. I said my thank yous and goodbyes to everyone and got a short ride to the nearby train station. The next day I dropped off a thank you note at the front gate as well, just in case I missed thanking anyone along the way. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Royal Botanical Gardens and Microbat Expedition

Within Melbourne there is a garden much larger than Fitzroy Garden. The Royal Botanical Garden is a huge area filled with various landscapes from around the world. I'll add a link to more pictures from the garden and bat project to this blog and Facebook once I can get them all uploaded.

What is a herbarium? 
"A herbarium is a scientific collection of preserved plants and fungi. The National Herbarium of Victoria is Victoria's primary plant biodiversity research institution. Our scientists are authorities on Australian plants and fungi and are part of a worldwide research network. Our research is underpinned by Australia's oldest and most comprehensive herbarium collection, comprising more than 1.2 million specimens, along with botanical literature, artwork and historical material."

In order to meet local researchers and see some native wildlife, I decided to do a one day Earthwatch expedition. This was the be held within the gardens. My train ran 30 minutes late. Once I arrived at the gardens, I attempted to take a short cut to get to the meet-up location on time. As I walked I received a phone call from a girl, Ellie, who wanted my help researching Little Penguins. I tried to compare availability with her, but it was nearly impossible without a calendar and out of breath from speed walking through the massive gardens. I had to get off the phone and ask her to email me the information to go through once I returned home. Hopefully I didn't ruin that opportunity! 

After a little while, I realized that shortcuts don't really work is gardens that size. I called a the phone number on my forms to let them know I was lost within the garden and might be a little late. One of the researchers, Tanja, came on a golf cart or "buggy" to pick me up and take me to the meet-up place. In my defense, it is doubtful I could have found the meet-up spot even if I had followed the directions. 

Inside a gardener's building, I met the project group. There were two researchers, Caroline and Tanja. Tanja was from Germany, while Caroline was from Australia. Both were pursuing their PHDs with this research. There were three other girls helping with the project as well, making us a group of six. 

The evening began with introductions and a short talk about the itinerary. We were going to be catching microbats, not the larger bats like flying foxes, but rather bats of similar size to the ones you would find in the US. After, we split into two equal sized groups to set harp traps throughout the gardens. I went with Tanja's group. The traps were disassembled metal poles wrapped in canvas and tarp within a bag, much resembling an unmade tent. We fit the poles together into a hollow square, pulled down two top poles which unraveled strings resembling a harp, hung canvas around the bottom with a tarp between, and added more poles for extra height. The traps were aligned on pathways, under tree arches. The bats would try to fly under the trees, meet the harp like barrier, and fall into the canvas. The tarp would keep the bat from crawling out of the trap. 

This was one case when wearing heels while doing field work would have been helpful. 

After setting up all eight traps, we headed back to the main building for a slideshow presentation on the research being done and local bat species, followed by a movie about bats from around the world. The biggest take away from this was learning that bats give birth to babies 1/3 their own weight, and sometimes they have twins. Think about that. It's like a 100lbs woman giving birth to two 30lbs babies! Ouch! 

We also ate various snacks, several of which were new to me. Everyone insisted I do a Tim Tam slam. The Tim Tams were small chocolate bars filled with a hard chocolatey caramel. I bit off a corner from each end and used it as a straw for warm milk. This softened the whole cookie like an Oreo soaked in milk. The goal was to eat the entire thing before it fell apart. The Tim Tam was yummy, but the warm milk wasn't so good.

So, after some time, we put on our "head torches" and went back out to check the traps. On the way, I told everyone about my first sighting of native wildlife. (Not including common birds.) I had been walking out of my apartment one evening and spotted an animal perched outside on a deck railing. I thought that I had finally spotted a bush-tailed possum. This animal was supposedly everywhere at night, but had eluded me. As I stared up at the animal, it crept into the light of a nearby window; there was just enough light to make out that it was a cat. :( Suddenly from above the roof flew a giant bat! It was the size of a large bird, but undeniably a bat, a flying fox to be more specific. I had yet to see a possum and I asked the group to point it out to me if they saw one. 

Almost immediately they spotted one. I was given a small stick and told to try to get the possums interest with the stick. It worked for long enough to get a good look at the adorably fluffy creature and one good picture. We also saw a ring-tailed possum, but it ran before anyone could get a picture. 

The security guy had moved the traps off of the path so he could drive through, but never put them back, keeping us from catching any bats on round one. We moved each trap back to their original spots and checked on them again after an hour of so. We caught two bats the second time. Both were Gould's Wattled Bats. The first bat was a lactating female, and the second was a juvenile male. Juveniles can be determined by looking at joints within the fingers of the wing. The male had several mites on him. Seeing them crawl around was the creepiest part of the whole night. 

^ Caroline is entering data, while Tanja is examining the bat. ^

^ Showing how they tell juvenile from adult bats. ^

^ The female bat ^

^ The male bat. ^

Neither researcher wore gloves. I asked why. They stated that they were both rabies vaccinated and were hardly ever bitten or scratched. Most of the bats they worked with wouldn't be able to break through the skin. Even if they did get bitten, they would just get a booster shot. I chose not to hold any bats myself, since I've grown much more comfortable wearing gloves when working with bats. While Australian bats don't carry rabies, they do carry a similar Lyssavirus. The rabies vaccine protects against both, but it's still better to be safe.

The bats were released and we all prepared out cots for bed. It was too cold for me to sleep well. I curled into a ball and shivered my way through the little bit of night left. Next time I'm bringing a heavy duty sleeping bag! There were no more bats caught by morning, so we went out with Caroline to take down and pack up all the harp traps while Tanja stayed behind to cook breakfast. Breakfast was amazing! We had toast with scrambled eggs, roasted tomatoes, and mushrooms. I might have just been super hungry. Everyone packed up their belongings after breakfast and said goodbye. There are a few more opportunities to assist in local bat research outside of earthwatch coming up soon. Hopefully I will be able to join in on those as well.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Notes on Australia

Flashlights are torches.

A doona is a blanket. (Not sure how you spell it.)

Drivers are on the right side of the car, and cars drive on the left side of the road. Can't tell you how many times I've tried to get in drivers seats or looked the wrong way when crossing the road.

American food is not the same here! Compare country menus of Dominos or KFC and see the difference.

Ketchup is tomato sauce, and tomato is pronounced with a soft a. KFC charges 50 cents per packet!

Shoe string French fries are called fries, but anything thicker are chips.

Burger King is called Hungry Jacks.

If you want something to-go, you have to ask for takeaway.

Nobody has a clue what corn bread is.

Cookies are called biscuits.

Outlets have individual on/off switches.

Calendars that you hang on the wall are calendars, while calendars you can carry are diaries.

Australians eat their national animals, the kangaroo and emu.

While there is Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, there is never more than one shelf of options. Plus it's expensive.

People say fortnight often.

Washcloths are face washes.

Service people don't get tips. 

The money here is very colorful and each bill and coin is a different size. One and two dollar coins are gold, while coins under a dollar are silver.

Aluminum is Aluminium. You spell and say the extra i.

Toilets have two buttons on them. From what I have gathered, the button on the left does nothing but makes the sound of water running, while the button on the right unleashes Niagara Falls. 

While on the subject, toilets often get their very own rooms here. I have only been in a few houses that have toilets in the bathrooms.

Cheers is a term used frequently. It means many things, but mostly hello, thank you, and when drinking. It is also an effective way to confuse Americans, as we have no idea how to respond.

American TV and music is most of the entertainment here. There is some British stuff mixed in, and very little Australian. There a quite a few zookeeper fans of Jimmy Buffet over here.

The word "every" is said by fully pronouncing the letter E. It is possibly the only word I can say with an Australian accent.

Speaking of letters, the letter Z is often pronounced as "zed." A few people have corrected me when I spell my last name. 

Phone numbers are different based on if you have a land line or cell phone, and sometimes who the carrier of your cell phone is as well. Most numbers start with 0, but sometimes the 0 can be skipped. Sometimes the second number isn't needed or it is simply implied that it is a landline. I prefer the American way.

Emails are often opened with "Greetings" and signed with "Regards" or "Cheers."

"How ya goin?" is what they say instead of "How are you doing?"

"Good on ya" is a saying that I haven't quite deciphered yet. I believe it's close to "good for you."

Over all the Australian accent sounds like a British accent made slurred and southern to me, much like a thick Louisiana accent in America.