A week in the life of a Macquarie Island wildlife ranger
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Two Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service rangers are based on Macquarie Island this year and, even though the days of winter are considerably shorter than summer, there is always plenty to do. Chris Howard and Mike Fawcett are into their second season on Macca. Their collective knowledge and experience gained over the previous year is really being put to good use as the island regenerates without pressure of rabbits, rats and mice. Chris, as the ranger in charge, is generally responsible for daily management of the island including works programmes, tourism management, track maintenance and administration. Mike, as the wildlife ranger, is primarily focused on wildlife research. The reserve is home to some 35 species of animal including penguins, burrowing petrels, albatross, seals, whales and dolphins. Mike’s extensive knowledge of the island landscape, gained as a hunter with the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Programme, continues to be put to good use as the island is now being monitored during the post eradication stage.
The role of rangers on Macquarie Island nature reserve and world heritage area is really no different to that of their counterparts working anywhere else in Australia, however their office is quite unique. The terrestrial component of the reserve where rangers spend most their time covers a total area of approx 12785 hectares, just over 14% of the greater reserve area of 87500 hectares. The greater protected area includes some outlying islands and surrounding waters out to 16 nautical miles, just under 22 kilometres.
So , what do they actually do? Tasks at the present include monitoring the breeding activities of the grey petrel, a burrowing seabird that nests in steep tussock-covered slopes. So far this season, approximately 35 burrows are being monitored for breeding activity. Blue petrels are also active at this time of year and rangers are out looking for their breeding locations. This season six wandering albatross chicks are being monitored over winter. The birds are all located in the remote southern corner of Macquarie Island and are checked monthly, with rangers taking care to observe from a safe distance as to ensure minimal disturbance. Information is sent back to researchers in Hobart as part of a greater albatross monitoring programme. Macquarie Island is an incredibly important breeding location for many bird species. Populations here have suffered from the impacts of cats, rodents and rabbits. It’s still early days on the island in the post eradication era, but the signs are good. King penguin chick population is also being monitored over winter in some locations.
The eradication of rabbits has also meant that the island flora is starting to recover. Recently, a significant tussock grass species was found growing well outside of its previously recorded range. Poa litorosa was only known to be growing in a couple of isolated locations, but recent observations have expanded the range of the species significantly. The grass has always been there – it was being eaten off by rabbits. One task of importance at the moment is the dismantling of all the old wire grazing enclosures before they disappear in the long grass. These plots have been used by researchers for many years to monitor the impact of rabbits. The wire and rusted star pickets can now be removed to prevent possible injury to wildlife. The plots still contain very important floristic information, so the steel pickets are being replaced with more flexible plastic conduit.
The weather on Macca takes a bit of getting used to. Days of sunshine are certainly appreciated amongst the gray rainy days – you learn to take it in your stride. It is not uncommon for rangers work solo, be in the field for two to three weeks at a time and to clock up 80 to 100 kilometres a week as they go about their tasks. No quad bikes or four wheel drives to use – good old fashioned walking!
There’s always other jobs to be done. Decking to be repaired, track markers, or even the preservation of historic artefacts is a really handy one to have up your sleeve for the days when nature says it’s best to be inside. And there is no escape from the administrative tasks – a week in the field will always result in a couple of days worth of reports. In amongst all of this, there is still our fair share of station duties to do as well.
And that’s just in a quiet week over winter. Wait until summer gets here and we start to get busy!