How to dabble with a dibbler
Helping save a tiny, endangered marsupial in Western Australia
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.
The endangered dibbler is slightly bigger than a mouse