How to dab­ble with a dib­bler

Help­ing save a tiny, en­dan­gered mar­su­pial in West­ern Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - VIR­GINIA JEAL­OUS

EXTENDINGbe­yondthe up­turned palm of Tim’s hand is a short­ish, ta­pered, furry tail. Tim’s fin­gers, firmly clasped, are hold­ing a fid­gety body with its white-rimmed but­ton-eyes peer­ing at his. Strong, small front paws grip his thumb tightly. Ex­cel­lent. This is the first dib­bler of the trip.

Dib­blers are car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pi­als, a bit big­ger than mouse-sized. But un­like mice, they are na­tive and they are en­dan­gered. First de­scribed in 1842, dib­blers were feared ex­tinct by the end of the 19th cen­tury. They were re­dis­cov­ered in 1967. Dib­blers live in a few iso­lated ar­eas of south­ern West­ern Aus­tralia, and I’m vol­un­teer­ing on one of the twice-yearly sur­veys by the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Con­ser­va­tion’s Dib­bler Re­cov­ery Team.

Weare sur­vey­ing low-ly­ing Boul­langer and Whit­lock is­lands, two dib­bler strongholds off­shore from the fish­ing com­mu­nity of Jurien Bay, a cou­ple of hours’ drive north of Perth. We­leave Jurien daily at first light, ob­serv­ing the eti­quette of the boat ramp. There is a small, or­derly queue ahead in the ‘‘launch’’ and ‘‘re­trieve’’ lanes; no hol­i­day-sea­son ramp-rage here.

Weare laden with the para­pher­na­lia of re­search: traps, bait (a mix that in­cludes fish oil; the smell hov­ers all week), ra­dios, hand-held GPS, and back­packs full of an­i­mal­record­ing gear that in­cludes tiny weigh­ing scales and mea­sur­ing calipers, mi­crochips and data sheets.

We­travel by in­flat­able Zo­diac and, in­stead of feel­ing like a fear­less Sea Shep­herd ac­tivist, I amat first very green and wob­bly. By the end of the week, and in calm weather, I’m (al­most) leap­ing in and out with the best of us.

We­set traps each day and check, ex­am­ine, and re­lease the dib­blers the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Vol­un­teers are en­trusted with data en­try and bag-car­ry­ing; the re­cov­ery team does all an­i­mal­han­dling. Weweigh and mea­sure, check the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of re­cap­tured an­i­mals and give iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers to new ones. Wecol­lect drop­pings to see ex­actly what dib­blers eat and look for ev­i­dence of breed­ing.

Their pouches are sim­ple con­cav­i­ties in the belly; we find fe­males with up to seven pouchy­oung, like tiny jelly­beans, each at­tached firmly to a nip­ple and shel­tered by fur.

On­n­earby Es­cape Is­land, os­preys are nest­ing at the end of a head­land on a mas­sive pile of sticks; it looks like a bon­fire ready to be lit in warn­ing if the light­house above it conks out. Wepass a colony of crested terns, beaks to the wind; un­con­cerned, they stay put as we walk by. Well, as we lum­ber by.

The is­land is also home to breed­ing colonies of shear­wa­ters; their bur­rows un­der­mine the is­land’s fri­able sur­face and we of­ten break through, knee-deep at times. Shear­wa­ters are all at sea now and won’t be res­i­dent again un­til spring; tattered re­mains of feath­ers and the bleached bones of those that didn’t make it are scat­tered on the ground.

We­place cam­eras in strate­gic spots to cap­ture im­ages of any noc­tur­nal wildlife. Mar­vel­lous things sur­round us. There are sea lions and dol­phins, and on a day of wild weather a wa­ter­spout twirls a grey rib­bon of foam from churn­ing sea to high sky; none of us has seen any­thing like it be­fore.

Each dib­bler is a thrill and if there were a dib­bler ac­tion group, I’d join, if only for the acro­nym. It’s a treat and priv­i­lege to see these spe­cial an­i­mals, in the com­pany of peo­ple who­knowthem so well.

dec.wa.gov.au

ROSS SWAN­BOR­OUGH

The en­dan­gered dib­bler is slightly big­ger than a mouse

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