18 May 2009

A few days in the life of a student, day 3

A spoiler alert before I go any further.

If you're studying EM353, conservation biology after 2009 and you've come across this blog while googling Mt Hyland to see what the place is like, well done on your research. However, some of the stuff that we did on day three was something of a surprise and I'm sure Karl and Caroline would prefer to keep it that way. So don't tell anyone what you read here, you'll spoil it for everyone.

Now, on with the story.

We'd expected a bit of rain on day three, actually we'd been expecting it for the whole field trip and had hardly seen any. This is the weather we awoke to. It was so nice that one of my room-mate and I grabbed our cameras and went for a wander.

If it had rained we wouldn't have worried, as our group was staying at camp all day while the others were off with the daisies. We were learning how to use the VORTEX program.

The previous night, our lecturers had been writing people's names on envelopes and occassionally chuckling to themselves as they did so. This morning before we started on VORTEX we found out why. Certain members of the class had been picked to be international delegates for a debate on fishing in the Galapagos Islands. Each of the delegates had to pick a couple of other people to be delegates with them. We were given an information sheet on our country, a more general sheet on the political agendas of all the countries, but most importantly a hidden agenda that we were not to show to any other country.

I was asked by the Bolivian delegate to join her and our agenda was basically that we would listen to whatever the other countries had to say and vote accordingly that night. We were expecting to be lobbied a lot during the day.

Back the the VORTEX activity, each group was given a stack of research papers about the Norther Bettong. A lot of the papers were actually written by our lecturer, Karl. If you click on that link you'll see why we were doing the Northern Bettong, that's what Karl did his PhD on. We had to find answers to several questions, like population density, age of sexual maturity, reproduction rates, etc.

While we were being briefed on all this in the dining room someone at my table noticed that the Australian delegate had left her hidden agenda lying around. Did we do the honourable thing and ignore it? Hell no, I opened it and had a look inside, then put it back down with a chuckle. It was all about the fact that this was the first time they'd been invited to one of these affairs and they just wanted to make friends and get taken out to dinner. After the briefing we sat outside in the sun and went through the research papers.

Once we'd got our Bettong answers we went back inside to the dining room where a projector was connected to a laptop running the VORTEX software. All the data were entered and when the analysis was run it told us how long a population would survive according to what factors were involved. For example, if there were a high number of foxes in the area, the population would become locally extinct within about 20 years due to predation.

On the same theme, we played a game afer lunch. Five groups were formed, each containing five people. These were rock wallaby populations. Each member of each group tossed a coin to find if they were male or female, which turned out to be a problem when one group al ended up the same sex. The rest of us were the unborn, waiting to join a group.

Coins were tossed again to see if the females had joeys or the males dispersed to other populations, or worse they died and joined the unborn group. Within about three generations nearly all the populations had become extinct and I hadn't even had a chance to be born. It was a great example of how small scattered populations have an uphill battle to survive and why conservation is so important.

A lot of the rest of the day was spent lobbying or being lobbied, we were offered massages and furniture by the Swedish delegation to vote their way. Aid was offered by the Americans and the Brits. The North Korean delegate offered us satellites and prostitutes. All in all it was a lot of fun trying to figure out what the hidden agendas were. Australia's agenda had already been found lying around again at least twice. In fact someone actually brought it over to us and read it out aloud.

Before dinner the main delegate from each country had to get up and make a quick speech putting their point of view across. A lot of people got right into this, using some pretty bad foreign accents. The Mexican delegation even wore face masks. Not surprisingly, the Australian's speech sounded remarkably like their hidden agenda, which by now most of us knew.

More lobbying went on before the votes were cast, but by this time it was dark outside, a fire had been lit outside, alcohol had been provided and most of us just stood around in groups having little party atmosphere type chats that had nothing to do with fishing in the Galapagos.

Then the voting started, but one of our hosts was missing. Conderiza Lice, played by Caroline one of our lecturers was nowhere to be found. I'd been standing by the door to start with, but one of the technicians had suggested I find somewhere to sit, as something was going to happen where I was standing. I had my suspicions that that something involved our missing lecturer.

The aforementioned tech was dispatched to find Caroline, but was back in the room within ten seconds saying there'd been a security breach. Then in marched Caroline, dressed as an Ecuadorian woman in a big floppy hat, shawl and blacked out front teeth. We thought that was funny, but when she threw open her shawl to reveal a bandoleer full of babies and started accusing Karl of being the father of one of them, the laughter just kept getting louder.

And that was pretty much it for the university education side of things for that night. I learnt a few things during a long chat with the ladies in my room after dinner, but you don't want to hear about that.

In my next post we all go home, but not before another couple of lessons.

14 May 2009

A few days in the life of a student, day 2

Those that didn't have to go looking for Wompoo Pigeons early on the second day got to sleep in a little. Of course, if you wanted to beat the queue for a shower you had to get up early, but that would also mean the shower would be a cold one. I opted for a hot cup of tea and some Cornflakes instead. Actually, I don't usually eat breakfast when I'm at home, but I'm often tempted when I'm away.

During breakfast the topic of farting in the night came up and my passenger from the day before assured me it hadn't been her. So that narrowed it down to one person. Don't worry, you secret is safe with me... and the other people in the room... and their loved ones at home if they chose to talk about it.

We had two activities in the morning. Groups one to five were learning about a program called Vortex. Basically what Vortex does is try to predict how long a particular population will survive, given certain events such as a fire in their habitat, or an increase in the number of foxes. The rest of us jumped in the minibuses and headed out of camp to count Dorrigo Daisies along the side of the road.

There are only around 2000 living Dorrigo Daisy plants in existence and they only live in about three populations in a certain area. Ironically, one of the reasons for their survival is logging. The Dorrigo Daisy is what's called a pioneer species, it grows in areas of disturbance. The logging roads near Mt Hyland are regularly graded by the forestry department and it's this grading that provides the conditions they need to grow.

We were dropped of at the side of the road and, with one person keeping a tally, the rest of us looked for daisies.

You may wonder why most people are on one side of the road and only a few on the other. Well the daisies had never been found on the left side of the road before, but on this day we found some. The vast majority however, were found on the other side of the road. In fact we found so many plants that someone jokingly asked if it could be delisted. On more than one occassion I had to point out to people that they were about to stand on one of the plants.

Because the other group would be counting daisies the next day, we stopped when we got to a certain point. A couple of volunteers carried on up the road to get the buses to come back for us, then after a near miss with an unladen logging truck we headed back to camp.

The idea of us surveying the daisies what not just to see how many there were, but to start off a translocation project. The other group would be collecting seeds the next day and hopefully new seedlings would be planted in a years time by future students doing the same subject. Before lunch we sat on the lawn discussing in our groups what would have to be done as far as seed collection, planting, etc.

Lunch, if memory serves me correctly was a sausage sizzle, with homemade sausages. Afterwards, we stuffed our bags with warm clothes, raingear and torches as we were heading off in the buses again and wouldn't be back until after dark.

First stop was at the top of Jordan's trail, where we walked about half an hour down to the escarpment. The trouble with downhill walks is that the walk back is always uphill.

Once at the escarpment we split into our groups again, ten metres apart along the cliff edge and started collecting data on Beadle's Grevillea. This is an ongoing project and, again, future students will do the same thing to see how the plants are recovering from fires back in 2003.

While some members of our group counted bushes and the flowers thereon, the rest of us got stuck into the other reason we were there, to count poo, specifically the poo of the rock wallaby. We started at the edge of the escarpment and then every ten metres in we would count in a square two metres by two metres. It was soon obvious that the rock wallaby prefers to be on the rocks rather than in the long grass nearby.

I know how it looks, but the guy sitting down with a stick in his hand wasn't there to make sure the others worked hard. That was his poo counting stick.

I'm sure the walk back up to the bus was quicker than the one down, drops of rain are a good motivator.

From Jordan's Trail we headed off to Liberation trail, via a toilet stop. Liberation trail was the site of logging protests many years ago. It brought about changes to the laws in New South Wales that meant logging companies had to do propper environmental impact studies before they started cutting down trees. Those changes eventually became the threatened species act.

We didn't actually get onto the trail, as by then it was dark. Instead, we formed into three groups, each with a spotlight and headed off up the road looking for beasties in the night. I'm not sure what the other groups saw, but ours saw five Greater Gliders and a Tawny Frogmouth. They're both animals I was glad to see. In the case of the glider, I've never seen one before other than in pictures. In the case of the Tawny, I've seen heaps of them, but most have been in captivity. To see on in the wild in the middle of a forest, not just my backyard, was great. I'd been talking about Tawnies the day before and managed to educate a few people on the fact that they aren't owls.

Curry was on the menu for dinner that night and there was plenty of variety, hot or mild, lamb, beef or beans. I think the beans were mainly meant for the vegetarians, but they were popular with everyone, especially in our room. Of the seven people in our room, only one didn't have beans as she didn't like them. When it was brought to her attention that she was the only one not having beens, it was said more as a warning. As it turned out she didn't need to worry, the only farting came from the other side of the room as usual.

In my next post we work out how to make the Northern Bettong extinct, then we become international delegates for a day. Oh, and if you're reading this because you're doing the same subject the following year, no telling.

12 May 2009

A few days in the life of a student, day 1

Often when I get back from a res school I get asked how my exams went. I then have to explain what a res school is. Actually, they call it intensive school now, which is probably a better description.

So, for your entertainment (and education), here's my little essay on "what I did at school camp".

As you'll recall from the last post, I ended up sharing a room with one guy and five girls. The kind of thing I would have dreamed off a few years ago when I was younger and single. Once we'd dumped our gear in the room, made sure our lecturer checked our name off the list as being their, and found out where the toilets were, we all assembled outside the classroom area. This was actually the closest we ever got to using that classroom.

We were put into ten groups with about six or seven in each. These would be the groups for the rest of our time there. My group was group seven and included a couple of my room mates.

The first activity for the day was to set up a nest predation experiment. The idea behind it was to test the edge effect theory. What that means is, a bird's nest is more likely to be raided by predators if it's on the edge of a forest than inside the forest. To test the theory, each group had ten artificial nests made from tennis ball halves with two plasticine eggs inside. Five of the nests were attached to trees on the edge of the forest, about 5 metres apart and the other five were attached to trees 50 metres inside the forest. We'd already been warned about leeches, so there was a lot of nervous checking of ankles, etc when we came back out of the forest.

Our afternoon activity was about endangered species in the area. Each group was given one or more species to look for and told the best way to find them and where to look. My group got the koala. We thought that was great, how hard could it be to find koalas in Australia. Just find the right kind of tree and look up. I have enough trouble finding koalas when there's a sign at the bottom saying, "koala in tree".

We wandered off into the forest looking for suitable trees. We'd been given a description of Tallowood trees, the koala's favourite, but because we hadn't actually been shown one we weren't really sure if we were looking up the right ones. We were quite possibly barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. After a fruitless search, where we didn't even find any koala poo or scratches on the bark we headed back to camp.

A few of us decided to keep looking, so we got some advice from a ranger that was visiting. He told us to head about 500 metres down a different track and we'd find a Tallowood tree with an orange ribbon around it that he'd put there earlier. On the ribbon was written, "Tallowood". All we needed to do was start looking there.

Well, this search was much like the previous one, still no koalas but at least we thought we had a better chance of finding them. We did however get to see and hear a few birds that I hadn't seen or heard before, such as Bell Miners.

Back up to camp and we got talking to people from other groups. They'd had as much success as we had. I'd did say they were threatened species in the area didn't I. One of my room mates mentioned she'd found a tick on her jeans and a leach on her jumper earlier. This time she pulled up the leg of her jeans and there was the tell-tale blood stain where a leech had fed on her ankle. The leech paranoia went up another notch.

Dinner that night was a lovely beef stew and then most of us had an early night. Another of my room mates had left home just after midnight that morning and had driven eleven hours to Mt Hyland. She as already in bed when I went back to the room around seven thirty. My passenger from that morning had to get up at five thirty the next day to go searching for Wompoo Pigeons and I was tired from all that driving and walking.

I wasn't so tired that I went straight off to sleep though. I lay awake for a while trying to figure out who it was that kept farting loudly in her sleep.

In my next post I'll tell you about counting wallaby poo, curried beans and more farting in the night.

07 May 2009

Mt Hyland Field Trip

I told you in my last post about my upcoming trip the Mt Hyland. Well it's no longer upcoming as I got back yesterday.

I should mention from the start that a couple of the pics in the last entry were in fact not on the way to the wilderness retreat. I put a little too much faith in the GPS, more about that later.

The idea for the first day of the trip was for most people to meet at the uni. Some were going to Mt Hyland in minibuses and the rest, like me, were taking our own vehicles. I got talking to a few people from the class before we left, including one that I knew from a previous res school last year.

When it came time to get on the buses, I asked my classmate from last year if she'd prefer a lift in the Subaru. Was it my dashing good looks, my wit, my charm, the chance to spend the next hour and a half alone with Mr Wonderful that encouraged her to accept my kind offer. No it was the thought of travelling in comfort with someone she knew, rather than in the minibus in discomfort, with a bunch of strangers. I think the only thing stopping her beating me to the car was that she didn't know which one was mine. Besides, she knew I was married and wasn't going to hit on her.

We left just before the buses and my passenger asked if we could stop at a service station on the way, to see if she could find a cheap plastic poncho. She'd forgotten to pack a raincoat. Once on the highway, still without a poncho, we got chatting about various things and at one stage I commented on the white Subaru in front of us, it was a later version of the one we were in.

All this time we were following the directions of the GPS, even though I've driven that road several times and knew the way fairly well. When it got to a point where it told us to turn left, I obeyed, even though I knew it wasn't the way I'd gone previously. I had it set to shortest route, rather than quickest and I'd approached Mt Hyland from a different direction before, so I assumed this way would work as well.

If you've got a GPS of your own, you'll know that when you stop following its directions it tries to recalculate your course for you. Well mine was starting to do this every couple of minutes and we were now on dirt roads.

I eventually realised we were heading south instead of north and that was why the GPS kept recalculating, must have missed a turn. When we did get back onto the, supposedly, right track it just seemed to get more confused, telling us to turn when there was no road to turn on. The right town names were showing up, but it certainly didn't seem like we were going to get where we wanted anytime soon.

Eventually I decided to backtrack to the main road and the route I'd taken previously. My passenger was now busting, so the the first priority was to find a service station, public loo, or suitable clump of bushes. When we found somewhere she could go I got out my mobile to call our lecturer just so he'd know we were running late, but there was no service where we were. And no, it wasn't a clump of bushes but they didn't sell ponchoes there either.

You can imagine how this was starting to look. I'm a happily married man with a, not unattractive, woman in the car with me. It should have taken us about an hour and a half to get to our destination, or to put it another way, we should have been there an hour ago. What were people going to think when we turned up late together?

Well we got onto the correct road, following my menory of the directions on the website more than the GPS. We drove up a narrow dirt road, surrounded by dense forest, and all of a sudden there was a clearing in front of us containg a a few buildings and two University of New England minibuses.

When we finally joined the group, no-one made a comment about us being late, although someone did say I'd changed my shirt (I hadn't, I'd just removed my jumper).

Below are some piccies of Mt Hyland Wilderness Retreat. The four days we spent there will be my next blog entry.

My accommodation. My room was the one with the french doors, shared with one other guy and five women, including my passenger. We guys were the only married people in the room and were on our best behaviour.

The building on the left is the main house. This is part of what we saw when we arrived, except that blue Subaru wasn't there because we were in it. There's another Subaru to the left of where I took the photo. It was the one we'd been following earlier. I bet you were wondering why I mentioned the white one earlier.

Olearia flocktoniae, the Dorrigo Daisy. There are only about 2000 of these in existence in only three locations, this was one of the reasons we were there.

Grevillea beadleana, Beadle's Grevillea, another endangered species.

The view from the escarpment, somewhere in Guy Fawkes River National Park. This is where we counted Beadle's Grevillea and wallaby poo, more about that later.