Casterton, black-cockatoos, and a change of routine / by Daniella Teixeira

A beautiful clear-skied day in September. A car loaded with wildlife recording equipment and all my belongings for the next two months. Music on, a deep breath. Here I go.

A southward journey of over 2,000 kilometres, I left my home on the Gold Coast that morning, my husband Josh by my side, abuzz with nerves and excitement.  After a decade in marine science, mostly in full-time time-monitored work, and a mere four months into my PhD, I was beginning my first proper research trip into country Australia, unrestrained except for the patterns of nature. This change from what’s familiar was slightly unnerving and somewhat uncomfortable, but mostly it was exhilarating. It was my first chance to absorb myself fully in what I love best – experiencing, researching and photographing wildlife – for two solid months.

Five days (and many awesome places) later we arrived in the far south-west of Victoria, in the tiny agricultural town of Casterton. It took us about 30 seconds to drive the length of the town’s one and only ‘main street’, my first thoughts including What do people do here? I’m going to be so bored and lonely! Thank goodness for 4G! To be clear, I love small towns and especially wilderness areas – but my experiences have usually involved cool beachside settlements or national parks where wildlife and scenic vistas abound. Here, it seemed to me that morning, I’d be surrounded by not much more than extensive farmland. Maybe I’d make friends with a cow.

Searching for decent coffee, we made the easy decision to stop at the only café that looked open, Say Grace. Surprisingly, it was a charming and cosy place, alive with people. It smelled glorious of homemade food and coffee, and the counter greeted us with freshly baked breads and fancy cheeses. People were crammed around the tables and in the spaces between, deliberating – as we quickly overheard – about the imminent flooding that was Casterton facing. How high will the waters rise at so-and-so’s place? Should we start sand-bagging here and there? (How will this affect my field work?).   

Other than potentially severe flooding (which apparently is not so uncommon in the region), I had barely an idea of what to expect from my time in Casterton. I did know, thanks to Google, that the town’s population is about 1,500 people and that its claim to fame is as the ‘birthplace of the kelpie’. And that it has three pubs (of course it does). I quickly figured this was a place to forgo my yoga classes and quinoa abundance bowls for treks across cow paddocks and dehydrated soup – and to be happy with that.

Most important of all, I knew that the areas surrounding Casterton are, in the good years, home to some of the last remaining South-eastern Red-tailed Black-cockatoos – one of two focal species of my PhD research. My whole reason for being there. 

There is something to be said for the first time you witness the animal that you have agreed to study intensively for at least the next three years of your life. Especially, as in my case, when you’ve never seen that animal before. Thanks to my eager local supervisor Richard, who had us fieldwork-ready in three hours flat, the moment happened to me on my very first evening in Casterton.

It was a cold and windy evening and everywhere was wet. I was rugged up in layers of thermals and a down jacket, gloves and a beanie. My ears ached from the wind, but I couldn’t cover them in case the bird sounds became even more muffled. We were, after all, relying on our sense of sound to find the birds. The first hour passed, and then another. It got dark and I was hungry. Every cockatoo call made my heart jump for an instant until I processed ‘sulphur-crested’, a.k.a the white ones.

But then, mid-way through a sentence about ecotourism, Richard cut me off exclaiming “Red-tail!”.

What?! I’d heard nothing.  Quickly, we scouted through our binoculars across the sky for the bird in flight. Richard spotted it almost immediately. “There!”, he said pointing. And just like that I saw my first South-eastern Red-tailed Black-cockatoo, a male flying in from the south. I literally jumped for joy.

After a week of help from Richard and Josh, I was flying solo, so to speak. My mission was to locate as many of the black-cockatoos as possible, preferably on nests, to set up remote monitoring equipment. While it might sound straightforward, I was warned by the experts that this task was to be quite the challenge. These birds are rare. We’re talking no more than 1,400 birds spread across an area of 18,000 km2 (hence their endangered status), with seemingly unpredictable movement patterns across the landscape. One year they might turn up in massive numbers, and then all but disappear for years after that. Apart from an annual ‘flock count’ by volunteers, no one is able to monitor them properly, let alone know how successfully they breed. This is basically the whole point of my PhD.

To begin, I spent my days and evenings navigating the roads that intersect the farmlands and what remains of the cockatoo’s natural Stringybark habitat, carefully listening for their distinctive calls. Most often this happened around dusk and into the evenings, when the male cockatoo normally calls to his female, who might be in a nest hollow, to join him for a feeding session.

Once I’d located the birds, I would try to follow them back to their nest; a sometimes painstaking task involving a lot of driving and stopping and listening and looking and driving and stopping….  you get the point. There were many frustrating nights when I would lose sight of birds and have to start over. On the whole, thankfully, things went my way - I soon had more breeding pairs than I had equipment to monitor. I even had red-tails flying over my place of accommodation most mornings and late afternoons.

My remaining time in Casterton was spent following the activities of these black-cockatoos, filming them, recording their sounds, and setting up equipment to monitor them when I’m not there. My field sites, however, were not spared the brunt of the bad weather. Once the flooding risk had passed, we experienced a severe low pressure system with cyclonic winds that put me out of action for days. Trees were literally being blown over, so it was far too dangerous to even attempt field work. All this rain also meant the dirt roads were pot-hole central and my farmland field sites were very wet and boggy. Totally impassable by vehicle, I was forced to visit these sites on foot, shin-deep in mud and manure, crossing electric fences, in gum boots five sizes too large, carrying my cameras, sound recorders, ladder, drill, GPS units and laptop, usually while contending with the seriously intense gazes and curious investigations of herds of cattle (the most intimidating part of it all, no joke). Ah, the glamor of field biology!

For all intents and purposes, it was a successful trip and a great start to my PhD. More than that though, I came to enjoy being alone for hours on end (if you know me, that’s saying something!) and, especially, being away from the hustle of big city life. My morning coffee at Say Grace was always a pleasure, and the girls there learned my coffee order by my second or third visit. Everyone I met was friendly and welcoming, often inviting me over to their homes for afternoon tea or a meal (since there’s really nowhere to go out to in town!). I even found it pleasant that people would stop me in the grocery shop and the petrol station and ask me who I was and what I was doing in town, clearly knowing that I was not from around there.

Lucky for me, I’ll be back in Casterton within a month, hopefully in better weather, to catch the beginning of the fledging season – when the baby red-tails take their first flight. I’ll be checking in on the birds that I monitored back in September and October and will collect my field equipment so that I can begin the ‘real’ task of the scientist – analysing months and months of data. Bring it on, I say. 

If you want to keep updated on my PhD work, follow Black-Cockatoo Project on Facebook.

Mother bird looking for a nest hollow

The locals

Popping out to say hi

Motion-sensor camera and sound recording equipment