Not long ago, I had the opportunity to accompany one of our zoologists on my first frogging expedition. We were on Flinders Island, to the north-east of Tasmania, and she was surveying a number of sites over the course of a week. For those who’ve not been frogging, this basically involves wading around in gumboots, turning off your torch for a bit, then listening to see how many different frog species you can ID from their calls. In Tasmania, we only have eleven frog species, so this is a relatively simple matter. I know next to nothing about frogs but on this night, I’d offered to accompany her as an assistant.
Our zoologist – let’s call her Bonnie – was not always a wildlife ecologist. She had previously worked as a regular vet, but had decided on a change of career after finding herself advising her clients to overfeed their cats, so they’d become too obese to squeeze through their cat flaps to chase native wildlife. Prior to this expedition, nobody had thought to mention Bonnie’s track record with random animals – beasts of all shapes and sizes seem violently attracted to her. I think this is because they know she’s an undercover vet, and have heard what vets get up to with needles and thermometers – Bonnie strenuously disputes this. In any case, someone really should have warned me about her dangerous animal magnetism.
As the sun dropped low in the sky, we finished dinner at our base camp, threw various boxes of gear, gumboots and disinfection buckets into the car, and headed off into the sunset. After a brief stop at an uninspiring farm dam, we drove on to the furthest-flung survey site – a patch of wetland in Wingaroo Nature Reserve.
Bonnie pulled the ute over to the roadside verge, and we pulled on our head torches and rubber boots. Pausing only to swish our gumboots in the disinfecting bucket to terminate any waterborne nasties, we flicked on our torches, and I followed her into the swampy shrubland. We started off following a trail-bike track, which shrank to a walking pad, before becoming submerged in the swamp. Teatrees and melaleucas formed an intermittent overhead thicket, obscuring visibility and muffling sound. Inching along in the soggy darkness, we soon made our way back onto solid, dry-ish ground, following Bonnie’s GPS log to the appointed listening site.
She was walking about three metres ahead of me when I first heard it. A snuffling, crashing noise to our right, which grew rapidly louder and closer.
Suddenly, a wombat the size of an overfed Labrador burst from the scrub, and started violently attacking Bonnie’s gumboots. She tried not to antagonize the beast unduly, and started shuffling backwards, attempting to fend it off with her boots. However, the marsupial terrorist would not be placated. It kept pushing and nipping at the brave zoologist until Bonnie took one step too far, and toppled over an inconveniently placed shrub.
It was at about this point that I unfroze, and realised that this might be something we’d have to fill out an Incident Report form for.
The beast was on top of her, snarling and snapping at what I believe was her nose – Bonnie maintains it was going for the jugular. Irrespective of the creature’s objective, I could stand slack-jawed no longer.
I stepped up behind the beast, and gave it a hefty kick up its bony-plated posterior. Hissing, it took off like an enraged furry haggis, and disappeared into the darkness of the swamp.
“Gracious me! What on earth just happened?” *
Neither of us could quite be sure. This was not normal wombat behaviour. Shaken, we continued our way to the frog survey site, determined that science would not be undermined by marsupial terrorist actions.
You listen for frogs in the darkness. Halfway through our allotted listening time, Bonnie switched her torch back on.
Bonnie: “I thought I heard something!”
Once we finally finished frog surveillance, a horrible realization fell upon us like a ravenous drop bear. We’d have to go back the way we came.
Me: “I’ve got a pocket knife!”
It was decided this wouldn’t do. Instead, we did what countless humans have doubtless done before us – uprooted the nearest, half-rotten trees we could find, and marched back to safety, brandishing our botanical toothpicks with baseless bravado before us.
No murderous wombats barred our way, and aside from dodging the suicidal wildlife endemic to Flinders Island roads, the rest of the night was without serious incident. My toe stopped hurting eventually, and Bonnie was eternally grateful for my bravery in the face of wild wombat fury and suggested I be awarded a medal of some kind. **
We also belatedly discovered that Wingaroo is a popular release site for hand-reared wombats orphaned by car accidents on the island. Coincidence? I think not.
* May have said something slightly ruder.
** But not so pleased that I told this story to every person I met on the island for the next week. Also, the medal and the eternal gratitude bits are also possibly not entirely true.