Monday, 8 December 2008

Bowden Sam: the power of the fluffy flap

A few months ago we moved to a part of Port Macquarie that is well-trafficked by koalas (and not so well-trafficked by traffic, fortunately). We discovered the "koality" of the neighbourhood when the cries of a pair of loved-up wahlees (as we call them in the trade) lullabied us to sleep one Spring night. Our new "habitat" butts against a green-belt which is zoned as genuine koala habitat - a koala corridor right in our backyard.

Shortly before the move, a koala was rescued very near our new house, in a street called Bowden Road. Rescuers Peter and Manda named the rescuee "Bowden Sam" (after the street name, which is our custom) and after the name of an associated human - usually the rescuer, the person who called in to report the koala, or, in my case, the koalawrangler who happened to be relocating to a house nearby.

Around the time of Sam’s release, we moved into our new house. Straightaway, we took a walk around the area hoping we'd be lucky enough to spot one of our tree-dwelling marsupial neighbours. We were spoilt: we saw not one but two koalas, and one of these was in Bowden Road.

The koala in question wasn't terribly high up (it wasn't a terribly high tree); in fact, I was a bit concerned that it contained a koala at all since the tree was at a suburban crossroads, surrounded by brick homes with dog-filled backyards and kids riding about on their bikes. This was not exactly dense, protective foliage.

It was heading into twilight so the koala seemed fairly alert, peering down at us with some interest. I circled the tree, looking out for the wahlee's Koala Hospital eartag but didn't spot one. The way this koala looked so intently at me - even moving about the branches to obtain a better view of us - made me wonder whether he was an ex-patient and was therefore used to the feeding rituals at the hospital (where many of the patients receive supplemental nutrition via syringe at 8am and 3pm daily).

It was well after 3pm but this koala was definitely interested in us, and I couldn't help but wonder if I had have whipped a feed pot out of my pocket, whether he wouldn't have made his way down the trunk for a spot of arvo tea. I was still wearing my Koala Hospital t-shirt after my earlier shift at the hospital, so maybe he thought we were now coming to them! A bit of post-release care!

Although I couldn't spy an eartag, what I did spy was what appeared from below to be a third ear - a fur-covered skin fold growing above the koala's right shoulder. The next time I saw Cheyne I tried to describe it. Her response? "Fluffy flap? Oh, that's Bowden Sam"! I was incredulous. Fancy the chances of an animal released to the wild hanging out in the very street after which he was named!

All koalas, like people, are distinctive in some way (if you know what to look for). In Bowden Sam's case, his identifying feature was his fluffy flap. Not that that bothered him any; although, for the Koala Hospital it proved quite useful as things turned out. Normally, the procedure is for a koala to be eartagged and microchipped just before release. However, when Sam was released, it was a case of: "I thought you eartagged him??", "No, I thought you eartagged him??". So when Sam was released, he was sans eartag, which explains why I couldn't see one.

After that, we made a habit of taking walks past that tree; we even modified our trips into town, creeping along Bowden Road in the car so as to "check on" Sam. It was always satisfying when he was there in 'his' tree, and more than a little nervewracking when he wasn't. Like any normal koala he would have several trees he called home in his home range. I wondered whether there were other avid Sam-watchers like us who worried about where he was when he wasn't in the tree they called 'his' tree.

Then our sightings of him grew less and less. Koala mating season was coming into full swing now: perhaps, we reasoned, Sam was off seeking out mates. We had harboured a secret hope that that carousing "Bonky Bill" we saw and heard in the clutch of bush reserve at the back of our place (although too far away to identify) was 'our' Bowden Sam gettin' jiggy wit' some koala sheila.

Over the ensuing months, I got busy with other things so it was a while between visits to the Koala Hospital. Then, just the other day, I dropped into the hospital where I was delighted by the likes of Barb's little homecare joey, Settlement Point Bea. While there, I flicked throught the daybook where I discovered the reason Sam sightings had dried up was that he had been back at the hospital! And he had been attacked by a dog. Oh no, poor Sam! (Fortunately, he had been successfully patched up and released only the day before my visit.)

Here was where his fluffy flap had come in handy. Without a tag to identify him as a former paitent, this koala was, to all intents and purposes, a new admission. Yet according to the staff at the hospital, they had him sitting on the treatment room table and were scratching their heads as to why the koala was taking fluids so readily and looking around like he owned the place (I hadn’t been feeding him on the sly, honestly!). When they had a good look at him and saw the fluffy flap above his right shoulder, they recalled the koala-with-the-fluffy-flap but not his name. Other hospital staff were contacted who could remember the fluffy bit too, but not the name of the koala. Then they leafed through some earlier admission data, saw Bowden Sam's name, and it rung a bell. When they dug out Bowden Sam's chart, voila! There is was in black and white: fluffy tag on right shoulder but hadn’t been eartagged. Sam's fluff flap saves the day. His identify was doubly confirmed when they re-ultrasounded him and the photo was a facsimile of the previous one taken of Sam during his last visit. This time when Sam was released, they made extra sure he was eartagged and microchipped. He’s now out in the wild again.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Sam's re-admission was where he had been found when he was rescued after the dog attack. He was picked up in Oxide Street (point B) - on the other side of Port from Bowden Road (point A).

Image courtesy of Google Maps Australia.

It amazed me just how far Sam had tarried from away from his eponymous Bowden Road. According to Google Maps, it's an hour or more by foot (although Sam would have travelled from A to B by foot and tree, as well as heading more 'as the crow flies' - straight through the reserve, then over a number of roads and across the not insubstantial Kooloonbung Creek) to reach Oxide Street near the Oxley Highway.

This is either a testament to the breadth of a koala's particular home range, or an indictment on the effects of habitat loss and urbanisation that Sam was forced to seek a mate so far afield. There is an interesting article, "Why Habitat Is So Important", exploring this very topic in December's hot-off-the-press Gum Tips newsletter if you'd like to know more.

So this explained why we hadn't seen Sam in a while - he'd been in the hospital and before that, he taken up digs far away from 'home'. I'd like to say I've seen Sam in his usual tree again since his release, but I haven't. He has been sighted only recently however, over near the TAFE - about half way between Bowden Road and Oxide Street. I must pay him visit some time!