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How to spot a Numbat in the wild...

The Numbat (a mispronounced version of the Noongar name Noombat) is a small, squirrel sized critically endangered marsupial found in a select few reserves in the West Australian wheatbelt. It survives entirely on a diet of termites, eating up to 20,000 of them per day and in recent years it's population has seen an increase thanks to better feral predator management and public awareness.

Australian marsupials have an unfortunate PR problem, they are mostly nocturnal. This means that the vast majority of the Australian public never gets the chance to see some of our amazing endemic species. It's often said that people only protect what they love and sadly it's proving hard to make people fall in love with small obscure animals that only come out at night. Thankfully the Numbat is diurnal, which means it's active during the day like us, and as a consequence it's gained itself quite an army of Numbat enthusiasts.

2020 has no doubt been a challenging year for us all. After losing my job as a tour guide in the Red Centre and relocating to the South West of WA for my first winter in 4 years I wasn't left with many options in terms of wildlife to photograph. It was a couple weeks after lockdown when I was on the phone to my dad, asking about his plans when he mentioned he was heading down to Dryandra Woodlands to go camping. I'd heard of Dryandra before but I hopped on google anyway and had a bit of a search. Turns out it's pretty much the best spot in WA to find Numbats, an animal that previous to this google search I had always thought was way too rare to spot in the wild. What a perfect winter photo quest, not only was I determined to find a Numbat in the wild but I wanted a photograph of one too...

What you're going to need:

A car and a hell of a lot of patience...

Numbats are rare, like really rare, like so rare that there re really only two good places left in Australia to see them. Dryandra Woodlands and Perup nature reserve, This guide will focus more on Dryandra as I'm yet to make it out to Perup but I'm sure it will apply to both.

First of all you're looking for a very small animal (about the size of a squirrel) but to make things a little harder they happen to be the exact same colour as their surrounding habitat so you're going to need keen eyes. Numbats seem to like open woodlands, or maybe I should rephrase that... Numbats seem to like Termites. Termites like open woodlands with plenty of fallen logs to munch away on. Numbats also need places to hide, such as hollows in decomposing logs or tree stumps. So the perfect territory for them looks a little like this:

Finding 20,000 termites per day is no easy task and to do so takes a large territory, upwards of 40 hectares. So to spot one in the wild you'll need to cover a fair amount of ground. Although there are plenty of sightings from walkers, I've found the best and most efficient way to spot them is by driving the many tracks that crisscross the woodlands. Keeping in mind that they're tiny, camouflaged and have a habit of freezing when they sense danger you're not going to see any at all if you drive around sticking to the speed limit. To spot them you need to be going slow enough that you can concentrate more on what's in the bush to your right (and left if you don't have a passenger) than the track in front of you!

I've found that putting the car in first and allowing it to creep forward at idle speed works the best but if you're in an auto keep it under 5kmph.

Spotting them takes time, I've found that on each trip we normally average about one Numbat every 5 hours of spotting, but that's not to say that there isn't plenty of other wildlife to keep you entertained on the drive. Echidnas seem to be in abundance here, with the most we've spotted in one day being over a dozen. If you've got super keen eyes then you'll find plenty of Mardo (Yellow footed Antechinus) and all sorts of beautiful birds to look out for too. Dryandra also happens to be a hotspot for Orchids during the cooler months of the year.

The more eyes you have in the car the better your chances are of spotting them, so make sure to invite some mates for the drive. Once you do spot one it's going to do one of two things, bolt or continue on with Numbat business. If you're lucky and the Numbat you've found is used to people then it will continue on with it's termite eating mission without a care in the world to your presence. The most likely outcome though is it will freeze and as you bring the car to a stop it will bolt (surprisingly quickly) into the closest log hollow. It's imperative at this point that you keep your eyes on which hollow it bolts into... This is going to be the key to your success.

Once it's in the hollow you can park up the car on the side of the track (safely, remembering to put on your hazards) and creep up closer to the entrance of the hollow, too close and the Numbat will never come out, too far and when it does you're not going to be able to get a photo!

I've found that about 20m works well, bring a pillow or something comfortable to sit on because you're going to be here for a while. Now it's time to wait... It's funny to observe the inverse relationship between time and doubt in your own mind as you sit there staring at the hollow waiting for it to come out. At the 5 minute mark you're 100% sure that it was in fact a Numbat and that it was definitely this hollow that it bolted to. After about half an hour that certainty has dropped to 50%, if you were the only one that spotted it in the car this is the point where the other passengers start to doubt your sanity. After an hour your certainty has dropped to about 10% and you start to doubt if it got away before you even sat down... The longest we've waited was almost an hour and a half before catching a glimpse at a Numbat snout, so be patient and it will pay off... Maybe.

It's also important to stay quiet during this time, which is nearly impossible when sitting on a tree stump surrounded by dry leaf litter and sticks, but try your best as the Numbat won't come out if you're playing your favourite tunes and chatting about what's for dinner that night.

In regards to the best time of day to spot them it seems that they follow the activity of their prey, termites. Numbats lack the powerful digging claws that most termite eating animals possess so they need to wait for the termites to be up towards the surface of the forest floor. This means that in winter you'll likely only see them in the hottest part of the day, for only a couple hours. They aren't much of a fan of rain either, preferring to stay in the comfort of their warm, soft burrows than brave the storm. In summer time however they are most often seen in the early hours of morning and late afternoon, retreating underground to a cooler burrow during the heat of the day.

If you're looking for up to date info on daily sightings then the caretakers at the Lyons Village can be great for a bit of inside knowledge. They've got plenty of maps to hand out and are always more than happy to chat about what's been seen around the reserve in the past couple days.

In regards to accommodation within the Dryandra area there are a couple great options. With two DBCA managed bush camps in the woodlands you'd be hard-pressed to find a better option. Fire pits for those cold winter nights and drop toilets at both. Keep in mind to check with the local shires if there is a fire ban on as to be honest the entire forest looks like it would go up with a match. If camping isn't your thing then there is accommodation available at the Lions Dryandra Village that can be booked online for a pretty reasonable price.

The Numbats main threat these days are feral predators and habitat loss. Thankfully DBCA is doing a great job of management around the crucial areas that they are found and a recent grassroots campaign managed to stop a rubbish tip being created within the vicinity (Rubbish dumps are well known to have substantially higher feral predator numbers due to increased prey). But other than being eaten by something Numbats face a larger challenge and that's the lack of territory for them to survive and thrive in. With one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, Australia seems to value cattle grazing and crop production over the survival of its endemic species, hence pushing these beautiful animals to the brink of extinction. Its not all doom and gloom though as the yearly Numbat survey numbers have been increasing substantially over the past decade with reintroduction programs being run over the state to bring their numbers back from the brink of collapse. By visiting Dryandra woodlands and bringing money to the community you are showing that you value these animals more than farmland and therefore doing your bit to help with the conservation of the species. If you'd like to learn more about the phenomenal conservation work being done to protect these species then head to:

Hopefully with a little bit of luck and a weekend of good weather you’ll be able to spot your first wild numbat and join the army of people committed to protecting these unique and beautiful Australian natives. Any other questions feel free to message me via the contact form on my website or a DM on Instagram, I’m more than happy to help!

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