Photography in the dark
The phone vibrates and chirps at us, rattling across Mitch’s bedside table. We manage to slowly drag ourselves out of bed, stumble to the kitchen and turn on the kettle. Bleary eyes tell us its 1.15am. We half gulp, half nurse a cup of coffee, collect two camera bags, a tripod and a light panel and clatter out the door and into the car. We venture across a very dark Canberra, sharing the roads with no one but moths under the streetlights. Pulling into a dark suburb we spot what looks like the small gated entrance to a park. A cluster of head torches are gathered in a circle near two 4WDs, we clamber out, cameras in hand. Mitch stops, raises the camera and fires off a few shots. The shutter was loud in the night.
“Oh god you’re starting already!”
“Morning Bel!” Mitch and I chorus. Its 1.50am…. and time for quolls!
Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary is a unique place. Put simply, it’s one of the invasive pest free spaces in Australia, a 485 hectare area of woodland bordered by a 6 foot high electric fence. The area was cleared of pest species and is used not only to protect the biggest patch of critically endangered Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy woodland in Australia (say that three times fast!), but also as the site for reintroduction experiments. We started working with Mulligans Flat last year after one of my photography teachers told us he knew their communications officer. After a meeting one night at a pub in Ainslie we’ve been getting amazing opportunities to work with this group ever since. This included photographing their echidna sweeps (surveys) last year, a night of bettong monitoring and the unique opportunity of photographing quolls.
Last year Mulligans put us in touch with PhD candidate Belinda Wilson. Bel’s research involves experimentally restoring the Eastern Quoll to the sanctuary. She seems to know everything there is to know about quolls and wildlife in general, and generously invited us to come photograph her work. This was our third time out on a monitoring session, these are only run twice a year, so once you get an email from Bel you push everything aside to go take quoll photos!
We arrived at the sanctuary at 1.50am, just in time to meet everyone and be told who was in our team. In hushed voices the brief for the night was given, everyone collected their gear and we set off. The general plan when checking traps is to drive along the track following the Mulligan crew’s 4WD. It’s slow going as you have to watch out for critters, with bettongs hopping off the road at the last minute and possums walking along next to the track, tails held high. When the group spots a marker flag tied to a tree or fence the cars stop and everyone jumps out. We find the trap nearby and check if it’s closed, when it is it means there’s either a quoll or bettong inside and it’s all systems go. Unless there’s a brushtail possum inside, which just gets released and saunters off into the night. This process continues until all traps along the line have been collected.
Our first trap of the night contained…a chocolate quoll! Not an Easter treat, this is the name given to the darker colour morph of eastern quolls. The other coat colour for the fashion conscious quoll is fawn, yet both morphs have the distinctive white spots. To light our photos on these nocturnal sojourns we carry an Aputure LED panel on a tripod. The brightness and colour balance is adjustable and having it on a tripod means we can change the height to suit the scene. Although, carrying a light around you become a magnet for every bug in the area…and also any scientist wanting to work in stronger light than that produced by their headtorch. We’re pretty sure they just keep having us back because of our giant light.
For the first hour or two, we could hear the sound of microbats echolocating but these dropped off and were gone by 4am. We also heard the occasional grunt/cough of a kangaroo and a brief snippet of curlew call, otherwise the night at Mulligans Flat was silent. Sort of…Breaking this silence was the occasional instruction or question from the team. “Have you got its head?” “Ok keep holding her, I’ll do the pes measurement next” (pes = foot, in case you were wondering). The team we go out quolling with is always different, except for the leader Bel. She runs a smooth ship and even though new faces pop up in the team they are generally connected to Mulligans in some way or are science students at the local university. Seeing her teach these newbies how to handle the quoll, take measurements and samples, record data then release the animal in a limited time is amazing to watch. There are rules though, particularly around taking the small fur samples, pulling fur from the spots on a quoll just doesn’t seem right!
Eastern quolls have been extinct from mainland Australia for about 50 years due to fox predation and competition for food with cats. They are one of six quoll species and can only be found in fox-free Tasmania or fenced sanctuaries. This experiment sourced quolls from captive bred populations in Tasmania and Victoria. Eastern quolls have also been reintroduced at Booderee National Park in an attempt to re-establish this species in the wild. Booderee is not a fenced sanctuary so the project had a lower survival rate, with quolls falling victim to foxes, becoming road kill or being attacked by snakes. Thankfully there were some survivors, which bred successfully meaning quoll babies were seen in October last year!
This was our third time out taking photos of the quoll trapping so we knew the routine well. We shoot with a range of lenses, wide angles or a 50mm were perfect for shooting the release but having a macro or a telephoto lets us really focus in during the sampling. Understanding what goes on and in what order makes taking photos a lot easier but having someone there that knows so much about the species and is happy to wait while we take certain photos has been incredible. Possibly our favourite part to photograph is when the animal is released. Each individual reacts differently, some quolls bound straight off into the night, others are hesitant to leave the bag and some just head straight at the photographer, turning off into the bush at the last minute.
By the time we reached the last trap on our line the sun was about to creep up and it was light enough to photograph without the LED panel. Cockatoos had begun to fly around, greeting the new day with a screech or two. Other birds had also begun to wake up, breaking the silence of the early morning as they began to hop around in the bush. Inside the last trap we found a female fawn coloured quoll. The team took their measurements, made their notes then released her. She bounded off back into the sanctuary, we all watched until we couldn’t see her any more. Although we’d been out since 2am the night had flown by. We’ll never get tired of seeing quolls and getting to photograph the amazing work being done at Mulligans Flat. The next monitoring session is scheduled for May, we can’t wait to come back out and take more photos. The next thing for us though was to head home and get ready for work, lucky it was Friday!