Must See Tasmanian Wildlife

The breathtaking splendour of wild animals, and the joy of close-up encounters with them, draws people to isolated places all over the world.

Here in Australia we’re blessed with a suite of animals that are found nowhere else. Sadly, a number of these special animals have disappeared from mainland Australia – including Tasmanian devils and several quoll species. The good news is that these mainland-missing animals are still easily seen in Tasmania.

There are several places around Tasmania where you’re guaranteed to see special animals and birds, but arguably none better than Maria Island National Park.

My island home

Here’s the thing about islands.

If a landmass is sufficiently separate from other landmasses its plants and animals get to go their own way, biologically speaking.

Over time, a nudge here from natural selection and a prod there from human – or some other – intervention and, hey presto, you’ve got yourself an island with a whole lot of interesting critters.

And islands are of course surrounded by water, which can, depending on the location, increase one’s chance of seeing marine creatures.

What’s really special about Maria is that it’s an island off another island (Tasmania) off another island (mainland Australia). And a chain of events led to it being declared a wildlife reserve nearly 50 years ago.

Ark Maria

In 1962, the Tasmanian Animals and Birds Protection Board – forerunner of today’s Parks and Wildlife Service – recommended setting Maria aside as a reserve for endangered animals.

There’d been concerns for some years about the effects on native animals of population spread and land clearing for agriculture. The remarkable Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, hadn’t been seen in the wild for decades, and was feared extinct. By the later 1960s, hydro-electric developments helped focus these concerns into an organised conservation movement, and ultimately the world’s first green political party – the United Tasmania Group.

Throughout the 1960s, Maria Island’s agricultural properties were acquired and livestock removed. Starting in 1969, endangered species were introduced. The mammals included forester kangaroos, Bennett’s wallabies, wombats and brush-tailed possums. Birds included Cape Barren geese and Tasmanian native hens.

In 1971 Maria island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary and it was proclaimed a national park in 1972. The associated Maria Island Marine Reserve, off the island’s north-east coast, was declared in 1991.

With a few exceptions, the island’s introduced birds and animals and its protected marine species have thrived.

Devilish times

In 2012, Maria’s ‘rock star’ introduced species arrived: a small, healthy population of endangered Tasmanian devils.

At times so widespread and prevalent in Tasmania that they were commonly seen as roadkill, devils had been in decline since 1996, when the transmissible cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) was first identified. There are now two known strains of DFTD; they account for a third of all known transmissible cancers.

Maria’s devils were intended to breed and provide healthy, wild-born individuals for re-introduction to mainland Tasmania. At this, they’ve been outrageously successful.

In just a few years the devils bred up to a population of around 100. Scores of Maria-bred devils have been trapped and removed from the island to keep population numbers in check.

Where to see animals on Maria

In short: everywhere, and that’s the joy of the place. Even on the most-used island walk, between Darlington ferry wharf and the historic precinct, people see Cape Barren geese, native hens and wombats – the latter in broad daylight.

Here’s a brief list of the animals you’ll encounter on Maria, and the most likely places to see them.

Forester kangaroos

Foresters – known as grey kangaroos in mainland Australia – are commonly seen on the grasslands surrounding the landing strip and, often in the evening, just north of Darlington, near Bernacchis Creek.

Foresters were once common in agricultural areas of Tasmania but by the 1950s and ‘60s their former population had been reduced by more than 80%. Today they’re seen mainly at Mt William, Narawntapu and Maria Island national parks.

Wombats

Maria’s wombat population numbers in the thousands and they’re seen everywhere, including in the middle of the Darlington quadrangle, around the camping ground, and on the hillside around Ruby Hunt’s cottage. Wombats are mostly nocturnal but they’re always seen in daylight hours on Maria. Sometimes so many of them graze in the same area they almost appear to be a herd of small cows.

Recent research has confirmed that the common wombats introduced to Maria in the early 1970s are the subspecies Vombatus ursinus ursinus, which was once found throughout the Bass Strait islands but is now found only on Flinders Island. The subspecies Vombatus ursinus tasmaniensis is found on mainland Tasmania. Both are distinct from the Australian mainland common wombat, Vombatus ursinus hirsutus.

Tasmanian devils

Maria Island’s devil population boomed after the marsupials were introduced and, given that they’re opportunistic carrion-eaters, it’s not unusual to see them lurking around the Darlington precinct, especially near the barbecues in the camping area. A female named Nutella, released on the island in 2013, famously raised her young in a den under the Darlington Penitentiary verandah. They’ve also been seen in other parts of the island, and sometimes during the day

Maria’s devils are among the best studied in Australia and the distinctive carnivore traps used by researchers – a wide-diameter PVC pipe with trapdoor lid – can sometimes be seen in scrub just off tracks near Darlington, and in other locations.

Cape Barren geese

These large, handsome birds are a common sight on the lawns around Darlington and the nearby airstrip grasslands. Their distinctive grumpy honking is one of the island’s more common sounds.

Cape Barren geese are found right along the southern coast of Australia and the population is considered secure and stable. But in the 1950s their numbers were so low that biologists feared for the species’ survival.

Marine mammals

Common and bottle-nosed dolphins are regularly seen, sometimes in large pods, in the Mercury Passage, which separates Maria from mainland Tasmania. Long-finned pilot whales are also common in these waters, and unfortunately the whale most likely to strand on Maria’s beaches. Humpback whales can be seen in the Passage during early winter, on their northwards migration, and in late spring, when they’re on their way back to Antarctica.

There’s a large Australian fur seal haul-out at Ile des Phoques, about 20 km north of Maria Island, and seals are a common sight in waters along the Fossil Cliffs and in Fossil Bay, and from time to time in Darlington Bay.

Help from the guides

Experienced trekking guides, such as the Maria Island Walk’s, are an invaluable asset for wildlife- and bird spotting, especially when it comes to the more obscure species. Because they’re constantly sharing information with their fellow guides they’ll usually know where the forty-spotted pardalotes have been seen, and they’ll have you recognizing the difference between kelp and Pacific gulls in no time.

And bear in mind that you won’t need the help of guides to see many of Maria’s animals – in some parts of the island you’ll virtually be tripping over them!

 

Tasmanian Devil article in the Telegraph

David Whitley wrote a nice article about Tasmanian Devils:

“The Maria Island Walk – one of the Australian Wildlife Journeys signature experiences – spends four days on the island, staying in glamping cabins and indulging in fully prepared local produce meals. And it’s not just the Tasmanian devils on the wildlife front. Walks along the island’s white-sand beaches bring sightings with playful dolphins and swooping sea eagles, while venturing inland brings birdsong-filled forests, plus encounters with wombats and wallabies.”

read the whole article here

 

 

5 facts you probably didn’t know about wombats

Maria Island National Park is a wombat wonderland. The Common Wombat is the largest burrowing mammal in Australia and can be viewed all over the island…

How heavy is the common wombat?

Approximately 20kg. The Tasmanian wombat is not as large or bulky as the wombats on the mainland.

What shape are wombat scats (poop)?

Wombat scats are cube-shaped. Why? Because they have a very long digestion process. As their food matter spends such a long time in the intestine, the by-products take on the same shape and the wombat poop eventually comes out shaped in a cube. They often leave poop on top of rocks and logs as territorial markers or to attract a mate and because the poop is cube-shaped it won’t roll away.

How long do wombats graze for? 

They graze for between 3 to 8 hours a night during which time they may travel many kilometres. You can often see wombats on Maria Island grazing and basking in the sun during the daytime.

Why do wombat pouches face backwards, opening towards the mother’s rear rather than her head?

Wombats are extreme diggers. They dig burrows up to 20m long and more than 2m below the ground with connecting tunnels and entrances. The wombats backward pouch allows them to dig without kicking dirt into their pouch, where a joey may just be sleeping.

When do wombats breed?

Wombats breed any time of the year however mating often occurs during winter. 30 days after mating a wombat pinkie is born (furless and in it’s mothers pouch). The mother carries the wombat pinkie in her pouch for 6 months. Afterwards, the wombat joey stays with it’s mother until it’s around 18 months old.