Two days ago I was headed up Lost Palm Gully, quietly tap, tap, tapping my snake stick as I crept up the dry creek bed and the most mysterious thing happened. To give you a sense of where I was the gully habitat is made up of a mixture of small rainforest palms on the flats with a pretty open understory and the walking is easy. Bigger rainforest trees grow on the adjacent banks and the steep slopes making access difficult. There is no established trail and occasionally you have to walk over fallen palm fronds, crunch, crunch, crunch, or traverse the stream bed of cobbles, which can make their own particular tones as they crunch underfoot. I was not trying to be especially quiet while walking up the gully for a bit of noise helps deter snakes, at least that is what I think! My subconscious mind was listening for any quirky bowerbird sounds and right when I was lost in thought, three things happened in rapid succession.
First, was the flap, flap, flap of big wings right above my head. I thought brush turkey? Looking up, I didn’t see anything even though it seemed quite close. Next, I heard something hit the ground as if the brush turkey had dropped a large loaf of bread. It hit with a thud, maybe like raw dough, but I didn’t see anything again. Third, something small and alive was coming towards me in the creek bed uttering little crying sounds. My first thought was E.T., an alien. That’s absurd, but at the time when I first saw the little creature, small, but lanky with unusual body proportions, alien entered my mind. My next thought was bandicoot! These nocturnal creatures are marsupials, have big ears (which this thing indeed had), and look a bit odd to me. But then I realized, no, it couldn’t be a bandicoot for it was the middle of the day. Well, what was it?
Finally, I settled on some type of kangaroo or wallaby, but a premature one that for some reason had been ejected from its mother’s pouch. Apparently, the mother kangaroo has muscles that control the pouch and eviction of the joey during times of stress is possible. Had I caused some disturbance? The little animal was coming up to me, whimpering. I wondered if it was sick. I wondered where its mother was. I wondered what to do. I wanted to pick it up, but I didn’t know if human scent would deter the mother from reclaiming it. I had my iPod in my pocket and only took time to whip it out and take a 10 second video. Then I thought I’d better get out of there as fast as possible.
The little animal hobbled along the creek bed; I jumped up the bank and passed it as quietly as I could, looking out for the mother. I could tell that something was wrong for it couldn’t hop properly like a mature joey out of the pouch. It would tend to lurch towards one side and almost fall over. It used its front arms to stabilize itself. I noticed that the pads on its hind legs were very soft and rubbery looking, no calluses. Undoubtedly, this animal had never been outside the pouch before. I felt very sorry for it, but figured nature would take care of its own.
About half an hour later, I was coming down the gully and bumped into the little guy. He had gotten up out of the creek bed and was making his way amongst the vegetation. No mother, still. Whimpering still. Looking lost, still. Again, I thought perhaps I was the cause of the baby being ejected from the mom’s pouch and that if I could just leave the area, the balance would be restored. So I left the little fella and headed out of Palm Gully.
As I walked down the creek bed, I couldn’t quite get a handle on this mystery. For many reasons. First, why would the mother eject the Joey? Second, why didn’t I hear the thumping sounds of the mother bounding away? Third, why was it coming up to me? Fourth, why hadn’t the mother circled around and picked her baby up? When I got back to the camp that afternoon and told Sara about it all she reminded me that people have reported seeing a few wild dogs, maybe dingos, in the area and that maybe the mother had been killed by the dogs, but the baby had escaped. When she said that I felt so bad for having abandoned the little joey. Well, it was almost night and there was nothing we could do about it until the morning.
So the next morning we planned our research day around a hike up Lost Palm Gully to look for the little guy, hoping that he had survived the dark night. We had our mobile phone and the number for the animal rescue center just in case we found him alive. I worried about him all the way in for many things could have taken him out, including a carpet python, the wild dogs, and starvation. When we got to the area where I had seen the little joey, Sara and I split up to cover more ground. We walked way up the creek then turned around and retraced our steps, switching sides. We looked everywhere and listened for the little whimpering sounds that I’d heard before. We also looked for any signs of a dead mamma kangaroo. After a while we gave up on our search, but not on solving the mystery.
I’ve told this story to several local people who seem to know the ways of the bush and one hypothesis seems to stand out above the rest. It puts all the evidence together and makes some sense of it all, but it is a bit hard to believe. The joey was a bit injured for it fell from a tree and hit the ground with a thud. Besides being premature and really too young to be out of the pouch, the fall explains why it seemed to be having trouble getting about. And the reason it was in a tree was that it had been captured by a large bird of prey and was about to become the bird’s dinner. That would explain the great whoosh of wings that I heard when I startled the bird. It wouldn’t explain why it was even alive for many hawks and eagles would have killed the prey item with their sharp talons. How the bird caught the joey and what happened to the mother is somehow part of the story, but a part that I cannot speculate on. In hindsight I wish I had at least caught the little animal and looked for signs of it being injured. I also should have taken better pictures so that at least the species of marsupial could be determined. And one more thing; I was in a bit of a rush that morning to complete some bowerbird task. Next time I’ll slow down a bit and let the mystery unfold.