Ngurrara Biodiversity Survey

On Sunday, 20 September an eight vehicle convoy pulled out of Halls Creek and started the long drive south into the rolling dunes of the Great Sandy Desert and onto Ngurrara Country. We were headed for Kuduarra (Well 46) on the Canning Stock Route, where we would set-up a base for a week-long biodiversity survey.

Alfie welcomes the group to country at Kuduarra (Well 46). 

This two-way science biodiversity survey is the first in a series of planned surveys Ngurrara have designed to build-on and promote their traditional knowledge and understanding of how different plants and animals respond to fire. Now is a particularly important time to do this monitoring, and to tell this story, as Ngurrara have just started an intensive fire management program where they use both aerial incendiaries dropped from a helicopter and ground burning techniques to look after an 125,000 ha area centered around Kuduarra. By burning at the right time of year (around March – July) this program aims to put in lots of small, patchy, low intensity fires, a little bit here, a little bit there, scattered through the landscape. Through time, this fire management hopes to shape country so that there is a larger range of vegetation ages post-fire, where some patches are recently burnt, some patches are long-unburnt, and lots of patches are somewhere in between. 

Before we started the survey, Alfie, a traditional owner for this area, welcomed everyone to country at Kuduarra; this followed an earlier welcome to country at Lampa (Well 49) as we drove through. 

Setting up

Setting up the sites for the first time was a bit of a slog, as everyone helped dig holes for the bucket (pitfall) traps and dig trenches for the drift fences. We all learnt that just because it is sandy on top, doesn’t mean you won’t end up using a crowbar further down!

Mal (Environs Kimberley), Emily (Ngurrara Ranger) and Julian (Karajarri Ranger) get to work setting up a survey site in vegetation that last burnt in 2017. Vegetation at this stage of regeneration post-fire is Waruwaru or Parrawa in Walmajarri.

We set-up funnel traps at the end of each fence, and camera traps to see what other animals were in the area but weren’t caught in the buckets. We set-up eight trapping sites in total, each with 100m of drift fences, 10 buckets, four funnel traps and four camera traps (baited with tasty ball of oats mixed with peanut-butter). 

The survey sites were placed in a range of different vegetation ages, so that we could see how animal and plant communities changed based on how long it had been since the area had last been burnt. We had two survey sites in Wuntara (very recently burnt;  in this case within an area burnt during a ranger burning trip a few months earlier), two sites in Waruwaru/Parrawa (re-sprouting spinifex, recently burnt; 1-3 years since fire), two sites in Nyirrinyana (spinifex after rain, intermediate age; 4-8 years since fire) and two sites in Yurnara (old spinifex, long unburnt; 8+ years since fire).

Emily checks the traps

Checking traps

Once everything was set-up, we settled into a routine for the next four days. Every morning we get up early and split into teams to go out and check the all the traps before it got too hot. In these morning checks we often caught Wakura (geckos) which had been moving about during the night, this was also when we occasionally caught a Wiljurn (small marsupial), Warlukarrpirnjuwal (dunnart) or Punypuny (mouse) in the buckets.

Over the four nights of trapping we caught six different types of Wakura, and three different types of small mammals.

After doing some other survey work and having a break in the shade during the middle of each day, we would again split into teams and head out again late in the late afternoon to check the traps at each site. These afternoon trap checks were when we were more likely to catch animals that ran around during the day like Wiji (small dragons) and Pampirta (big dragons), Wirlka and Wirrily (different types of goannas) and Wurrkarn or ‘slippery lizards’ (AKA skinks). Throughout the survey we caught two types of Wiji/Pampirta, two types of goanna (Wirlka and Wirrily) and 11 types of Wurrkarn. We also caught two types of legless lizard (one way you can tell they aren’t snakes is that they have ear holes), and one Munyjuku or blind snake (they only eat termite eggs and larvae). 

Hamsini and Rasheeda identify a lizard caught at a site in Yunnara (long-unburnt vegetation) 

We kept a running score board at the camp of how many species were caught in the different habitats each day, that way everyone could see the results and patterns immediately.  Some animals, like the Pampirta or Central Netted Dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis), we only ever caught at sites which had burnt within the last three years and so they had a lot of bare sand and insects. Other animals, like the Leopard Ctenotus (Ctenotus pantherinus) were much more likely to be caught at sites with lots of big, old spinifex which provides lots of places for them to hide.  

Alfie and Hamsini measure a legless lizard (Pygopus nigriceps) caught at a site in Wundra (recently-burnt) (photo: V. Densmore/DBCA) 

Every time we caught a reptile we would write down what species it was, which site and trap we caught it at and take some measurements using a ruler. Sometimes we could tell whether it was male or female and we would record this too – for example, at this time of year the male Jiningka (military dragons) have a lot of black coloring on their necks and stomachs. Before releasing the lizards we would give them a small mark with a texta so we would know if we caught it again that it had already been counted. Similarly, for any mammals we caught we recorded the species, whether it was male and female and took some measurements before releasing them into the spinifex. 

Australia’s deserts have a lot of different reptile species, here are just some of the different types that we caught on our survey. Top left is a Pampirta or Central Netted Dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis), this species likes recently burnt areas with lots of open ground. Top right is Wurrkarn or a Leopard Ctenotus (Ctenotus pantherinus) this species likes big spinifex clumps. Bottom left is a Wirrily or Pygmy Goanna (Varanus brevicauda) we only caught two of these on our survey, both were at a long-unburnt site with lots of old spinifex (photo: M. Lindsay/Environs Kimberley) . Bottom right is a Wakura or Western Beaked Gecko (Rhynchoedura ornata), this species is not that picky in what it likes – we found it in both recently burnt and long-unburnt sites (photo: M. Lindsay/Environs Kimberley).

Vegetation survey

As well as checking all of the traps every morning and evening, for each site we also did a vegetation survey, a 2ha sand plot survey looking for tracks and scats, and took site photos both from the ground and from above using a drone.

Information about what age vegetation you can most easily find different bushfoods was also recorded during a discussion with Alfie, Tina and Elton. All of this information will be useful in understanding how plants and animals around Kuduarra respond to fire, and how the landscape is likely to change as rangers use more Lirramunu (controlled fire) during Makurra (the cool season) to try and stop big Parntulirriny (hot fires) at other times of the year.  

Everyone enjoyed exploring and visiting the claypans of Gravity Lake

Throughout the week we managed to squeeze in some other fun activities in between the morning and evening trap-checks. One day after the morning check the whole group went for an explore further south along the stock route as far as Gravity Lake.

This was not only a great opportunity to explore the claypans, but also to look at fuel loads along the way and think about where to target fire management next year, and to see how an aerial burn that had been done earlier in the year looked from the ground. One night later in the week a smaller group went spotlighting on a nearby Jilji (dune).

We found four knob-tailed geckos and accidentally woke up a pair of Nyilynyil (white-winged fairy-wrens) who were sleeping in a patch of long-unburnt vegetation at the base of the Jilji. On the final night of the survey we had a quiz where teams of the rangers and other TOs were asked questions like the English names for different animals we had caught during the week, and then all the western scientists were asked questions about Walmajarri names and the number of Jilji we had crossed to get to Gravity Lake! 

A juvenile pale knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus laevissimus) was found while spotlighting on a jilji (sand dune) close to camp (photo: H. Bijlani/Environs Kimberley). 

The next day after the final trap-check and all the trapping sites had been packed up, Mal announced the winner of ‘La TAB’, or the person or group of people that had correctly betted at the start of the survey which of the vegetation age would have the highest number of animals caught and which would have the most different types of animals caught (not including animals caught on the camera traps).

On the final night of the survey we had a quiz where teams of the rangers and TOs were asked questions like the English names for different animals we had caught during the week, and then all the western scientists were asked questions about Walmajarri names and the number of jilji (dunes) we had crossed to get to Gravity Lake!

Lots of people were right in guessing that the Wuntra (very recently burnt – 0 years since fire) sites caught the highest number of animals, but only one person was right in guessing that the Waruwaru/Parrawa (recently burnt; 1-3 years since fire) sites would catch the most different types of animals. What we all agreed on though was that while some types of animals aren’t too fussy about where they live, lots of them do care, with some liking recently burnt areas and others liking areas with big old spinifex.

This means that if we want to look after all of them we probably need to have lots of patches of different aged vegetation scattered all throughout the landscape – this is one of the things Ngurrara is hoping to get more of by doing intensive fire management in this area going forward.  

On the last morning we caught two new mammals for the survey. On the left is a Wiljurn or Little Red Kaluta (Dasykaluta rosamondae) and on the right a Warlukarrpirnjuwal or Stripe-faced Dunnart (Sminthopsis macroura). This record of a Kaluta is the most north-easterly in Australia and represents a range-extension for this species. 

What we all agreed on though was that while some types of animals aren’t too fussy about where they live, lots of them do care, with some liking recently burnt areas and others liking areas with big old spinifex. This means that is we want to look after all of them we probably need to have lots of patches of different aged vegetation scattered all throughout the landscape – this is one of the things the Ngurrara Rangers are hoping to get more of by doing intensive fire management in this area going forward.  

The tally

Seven days, 261 individual animals, 27 different species, and I-lost-count-of-how-many flat tyres later the convoy was back Halls Creek and hanging out for a cool drink. While there is still some more work to be done from the office – like doing some more in-depth analysis of what we caught in what age vegetation, looking through the camera trap pictures to see what animals we missed in the buckets – the Ngurrara Rangers are already talking excitedly about their next survey, and what they might find when trapping after the summer rains! 

Ngurrara’s intensive fire management program around Kuduarra/Well 46 is funded by the 10 Deserts Project and is being delivered in partnership with the Kimberley Land Council. This biodiversity survey was led by Ngurrara and is a collaboration with the Karajarri Rangers, who have been conducting similar monitoring on the Karajarri IPA since 2019 (read more here). By using a shared survey approach to understanding how fire management changes the vegetation and animals over time, the monitoring results from Ngurrara and Karajarri will allow for a regional assessment. Additional partners providing advice on survey design and analysis, practical assistance and/or funding include Environs Kimberley, the NESP Threatened Species Hub, the WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) and the 10 Deserts Project

All language names are Walmajarri and are from the published dictionary.

Words by Hannah Cliff, 10 Deserts Project; images by Hannah Cliff, M. Lindsay/Environs Kimberley, H. Bijlani/Environs Kimberley, and V. Densmore/DBCA.

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