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Family life on Goonderoo

Published 20 Jun 2010 

Meet a special family whose volunteer stint as reserve caretakers was made possible by our supporters

Toby Prothero looks for wildlife Toby keeps watch over the sugar glider. Photo: Steve Prothero

When Cathy Olive's five-year-old son Toby discovered a sugar glider outside his bedroom, he and his sister Jirri were so excited they sat out every night for two weeks to watch every movement of the tiny creature.

It was then that Cathy and her husband Steve knew their six-month stint as volunteer reserve caretakers at Bush Heritage's Goonderoo Reserve in Central Queensland had changed their family's lives forever.

A passion for the environment

For years, Cathy and Steve had been pondering how to share their passion for the environment with their children, Jirri, 7, and Toby, 5. But they never quite imagined their idea would lead them to a six-month stay caring for the land at Goonderoo, a 600 ha property in the fertile Brigalow Belt of Central Queensland.

At first, Toby felt overwhelmed by the scale of the dark. "He could not stop turning on his torch," says Cathy. "But after only five days, he was keen to find out what was out there and would take his binoculars and rug and sit under the stars waiting to discover what the native animals were up to."

The whole family fell in love with Goonderoo - its grasslands and woodlands provide excellent habitats for many native flora and fauna, including sugar gliders, koalas, bettongs, swamp wallabies, euros, grey kangaroos, echidnas and brush-tailed possums.

"It's a remarkably diverse area," says Cathy. "Our house was situated on a volcanic knob with native grass, which drops down into red, sandy country."

Toby Prothero's diaryGetting close to nature

Jirri and Toby loved every aspect of life on Goonderoo, from catching and identifying butterflies, frogs and lizards to helping set up the camera traps and learning the various animal tracks.

When asked at the completion of their stay what she loved most about the last six months, Jirri simply said, "I love the space and freedom of Goonderoo."

Daily life on the property was a relaxed routine, so different to the busy demands of life at home in Alexandra, 110 km north-east of Melbourne.

"The kids fed the neighbour's horses in the morning," says Cathy, "then either Steve or I would start home schooling while the other went to work, spraying or stabbing cacti and checking feral traps."

Lunch was often a picnic at the dam and a long swim, and then it was back to school and work.

Cathy Olive and kidsCathy Olive with Toby and Jirri. Photo: Steve Prothero

On the trail of the elusive bridled nail tail wallaby

The family's most exciting task was to 'trap' the elusive bridled nail tail, a small endangered wallaby that was translocated to the adjoining property a decade earlier.

The family worked with Bush Heritage Ecologist Murray Haseler, who had hoped the nail tail would spread through the areas of suitable habitat on Goonderoo. But so far, sightings have only been occasional and knowledge of their whereabouts is patchy.

Cathy remembers the project as a highlight for the children.

"I'll never forget the look on Jirri and Toby's faces when they got to hold a nail tail that had been trapped on the neighbouring property of Avocet. After such a long hunt for the marsupial, it was such a thrill to see one up close. The distinctive colouring was quite stunning."

The project became a mixture of natural history, science and bush detective work to determine the best place for the traps.

"At one stage we thought we had a nail tail on the property for sure," says Cathy. "We found prints that looked just like the plaster cast print we had taken from a taxidermied nail tail. We thought we had an exact replica. The scats were identical too. Unfortunately, it turns out that rufous bettongs are almost exactly the same, so although there was lots of excitement building, it wasn't to be."

Cathy and Steve also conducted cool burns to provide areas of green pick to attract the nail tail. This also aimed to create wildfire buffers, whilst protecting the fire-sensitive, regenerating brigalow, a long-lived wattle with silver leaves and rough bark. "It was a touchy exercise," says Cathy. "The buffel grass was highly flammable and thick after a big wet season."

Community and family

Toby and Jirri Prothero at Goonderoo ReserveToby and Jirri with the remote camera that captured images of nocturnal animals. Photo: Steve Prothero

The community around Goonderoo became a great source of information and shared excitement for the children and served to further deepen their sense of the importance of nurturing our land.

The kids adored their Bush Heritage family: Murray [Haseler] and Steve [Heggie], and our neighbours Hugo from Avocet, and Cathy Zwick and the Wilson family from Carnarvon," says Cathy. "They became great friends."

Toby and Jirri have become more independent and outgoing.

"When we got home, most people hardly recognised Toby," says Cathy. "He was quite introverted before but has become much more extroverted. And Jirri, who is quiet by nature, has developed real strength of character. She's now very sure who she is."

Although it has been difficult to settle back into their busy life at home, the family have considered setting off again at some point.

"We became such a close unit as a family," she says. "We still miss Queensland."

By Kate Johnston

Bridled nail tail wallaby

Bridled nail tail wallabyBridled nail tail wallaby. Photo: Pavel German

The bridled nail tail wallaby is so called because of the white 'bridle' line running along its neck, shoulder and forearm area and a nail-like spur at the tip of its tail.

The nail tail, known locally as the flashjack, is endangered and only a few tiny wild populations are left, one which was reintroduced just a kilometre away on Avocet, a neighbouring property to Goonderoo.

It's small, shy and hard to find in its dense habitat. Bush Heritage's Queensland Ecologist, Murray Haseler, set up a survey program using motion-sensing camera traps at Goonderoo to map the population of the nail tail.

The survey hopes to map the distribution and habitat use of the wallaby across Goonderoo and Avocet. Your support will help Murray and his team understand and better protect this beautiful and endangered creature.

Bush Heritage would like to thank Cathy and Steve for supporting our work on Goonderoo, Carnarvon and Edgbaston reserves. And we'd like to thank you – it's the support of donors like you who make it possible to send volunteers like the Olive-Prothero family to work on our reserves.

We would like to acknowledge the Norman Wettenhall Foundation for their generous support of this work.

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