Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton has praised results from a koala study in the Gunnedah area.
The new project has seen six new water stations set-up for koalas under the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage’s (OEH) Saving our Species (SoS) program.
The water stations are named Blinky Drinkers and are placed in trees to give koalas easy access to water. They are connected to a 220-litre water drum, which keeps them full. The drinkers were designed by local farmer Robert Frend and honed with the help of the University of Sydney’s Doctor Valentine Mella.
Gunnedah Urban Landcare Group (GULG) installed the six Blinky Drinkers on a number of properties in the Gunnedah shire.
“We put half a dozen Blinky Drinkers out in December for the [University of] Sydney students at Breeza and we started putting out a new round last week,” GULG member Rod Browne said on Friday.
“We put out two at Curlewis and the rest in the Emerald Hill area on Quia Road, and we’ve got about another 13 to go.
“It’s just a matter of spreading them across the district and in places where they’ll make a difference.”
Cameras are also set-up near the drinkers so they can monitor the koalas’ use.
The new project will build on the university’s research from an ongoing project focusing on koala behaviour.
Dr Valentina Mella is leading the world-first study, which was established in 2015 on Mr Frend’s property, “Dimberoy”. Together, they have developed a monitoring system with antennae installed over the drinking bowls to identify individual koalas’ microchips and cameras to capture night visitors.
“The Office of Environment and Heritage has asked the University of Sydney to look after their project too,” Dr Mella said.
“We’ve been collecting data for over two years now so the drink station that the Office of Environment and Heritage are using at Rob’s station anyway, so it makes sense to continue the monitoring but the University of Sydney is using data from both of these projects.
“Because we've been working in Breeza for over two years, we knew where koalas would be.”
While the OEH project has only been running for a month, Dr Mella said a koala had already discovered a drinker.
“We only have one koala so far with the drinker but that’s pretty good because they take a bit of time to find the drinkers,” she said.
“They’re not used to seeing drinkers in trees.”
Sam Clift and Kate Wilson, owners of the property where new Blinky Drinkers are installed, said they have often seen koalas seek shelter and water close to home.
“We are hopeful that the new Blinky Drinkers will help retain and even increase the population of the 40 koalas or more that have already been microchipped at the property since 2015,” Ms Wilson said.
Dr Mella said she is pleased with the results from the studies.
“Our study has shown that whilst more koalas visited the drinkers during the hot months, they still used the drinkers extensively in cool months too, often drinking for up to 10 minutes at a time,” Dr Mella said.
“In the videos filmed at the new Blinky Drinkers, we can see a sulphur crested cockatoo, a feathertail glider, a rosella, a brushtail possum, two kestrels and pleasingly, a koala, all appreciating the drinker.”
Dr Mella said the university has collared micro-chipped 182 koalas since 2015, with plans to collar more in May.
“We can find out who’s visiting and how long they’re there for,” she said.
“We have microchip readers at every drinker and it records throughout the day, so if we have a koala, we will get a reading from it.
“The cameras are functioning only during the night because if you leave them on during the day, we would get so much footage of other wildlife and the SD cards would fill up really quickly.
“The cameras start recording when the sun goes down and they record all throughout the night and they record all throughout the morning.”
Dr Mella said the reasoning behind the time period was drawn from university research that found koalas are drinking in the evening and the early morning.
“On Rob’s property, this is the second summer and we’re continuing to record drinking behaviour and we're relating that to temperatures and rainfall to see how heat and temperature are affecting the behaviour of the koalas,” she said.
“What we noticed is that in summer, temperature is the main reason why koalas spend time at the drinker. The hotter it is, the longer and more frequent the visits are.
“In winter, the interesting part of the results is that rainfall is very important. If it doesn’t rain for a long period of time, even though the weather is cool, the animal will still need to come to the drinker because it’s dry.”
On average, Dr Mella said the amount of time between the koalas’ visits varied.
“The average time is two weeks,” she said.
“Some animals come every few days, some come every few weeks.”
At “Dimberoy”, the drinkers are mainly in Eucalyptus populnea (better known as the poplar box), and in Breeza, the drinkers are installed in red river gums and white box.
“We usually pick trees depending on the frequency – if we see a lot of scat under the tree, we know it’s popular [and] if we see koalas sitting in the trees, we know it’s well-used, and also from the data we gather from the micro-chips,” Dr Mella said.
“We know exactly how much time they spend in trees and that’s how we pick the trees.”
Dr Mella said Mr Frend had been “fundamental” to the project.
“Rob has been amazing for the project. Without him, we couldn't have done any of this. He’s our koala hero.
“He’s really amazing at coming up with solutions without spending heaps of money.”
Dr Mella said it was a “journey” to perfect the Blinky Drinker design.
“I think we’ve finally got it and it’s working well because it’s very hard to predict what an animal will accept and what they’re not going to like,” she said.
“It’s very tricky to find something that will work from the animals point of view and the human point of view – we wanted something that’s easy to maintain.”
Dr Mella said she will probably travel to Gunnedah at the end of January to take part in a documentary on the drinkers.
“It’s very focused on how Rob has helped us and helped us build the drinkers,” she said.
Dr Mella would also like to visit Gunnedah towards the end of the summer “just to see how everything is going”.
“We try to avoid coming out to catch koalas in summer because they hot and we don’t want to stress them out any more.
“We usually have a catching trip in May and September/October.”