cher chow 周馥溢

Semester Down Under

January 07, 2017

I’ve finally returned to the land of lightning fast (comparatively!) wifi after my semester in the Australian Wet Tropics and subsequent travelling with my mom around Bangkok and Prague. It’s been a lot to process, not just visually and mentally, but, literally, more than a thousand photos to go through. I’m not exaggerating, but no complaints here! Sharing and describing my experiences in all these different places is definitely on my to-do list. I guess I’ll just be adopting an “analogue approach” as a photographer/blogger– like waiting for film to develop, print, and scan, but writing and photo-editing (I also have film from Prague that I haven’t sent to the lab yet. Productivity is not my forté this holiday season.) But here goes! Also keep an eye out for some photosets later on from my semester excursions!

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First off, I just want to say, I wasn’t in the outback of Australia! I know a lot of people’s impression of Australia is the outback and its dry climate with kangaroos and wallabies, but my program focused primarily on rainforest studies in the Wet Tropics region way up north of the usual Aussie destinations. As you see above, we were surrounded by towering stands of figs, bleeding heart trees, and a bunch of other species I only know the scientific names to. The campus is situated in a patch of highland rainforest bordering Cairns, so we were pretty isolated from everyone and anything else in civilization most of the time. Day to day routines were centered around our classroom, common room, offices, dining area, and outdoor volleyball court. We weren’t there the entire time, however; my cohort had overnight trips to Cairns, coastal rainforests up north in Daintree, Chillagoe in the outback region, and even worked at the local music festival before finals.

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I took three classes for the first two months of the semester– Rainforest Ecology, Forest Management, and Environmental Policy and Socioeconomics– and then finished my semester with a month of directed research. I could write forever on the details of my courses, but in a nutshell, ecology and forest management covered the typical “biology-esque” information of Wet Tropics flora and fauna, and respective conservation. The policy class acted as the practical glue, adding people, culture, and history into the science, especially knowledge of the indigenous people groups in the region.

My field study abroad experience definitely is not the glamorous stereotype people usually envision of “studying abroad”. Someone from a previous cohort wrote on my bed that it would be the dirtiest but most fun semester, and they weren’t wrong. To give you an idea of what field work was like, here are the titles of my papers and what data collection actually entailed:

  1. Assessing species composition and recruitment success in tropical rainforest reforestation techniques– Spent two days killing marsh flies and trying to avoid raspberry “bushes” while measuring, tagging, and identifying all the trees in 11 x 17 m plot.
  2. Assessing boundary dynamics across a tropical rainforest-wet sclerophyll-savanna ecotone through young tree and grass communities– Mastering how to kill marsh flies while hug-measuring trees, creating a gear system with your Bean pants pockets, team bonding in group Lyclear lotion sessions (heard of chiggers?).
  3. The role of fire in wet sclerophyll forests for yellow-bellied glider den habitat in Far North Queensland– ACL killing/strengthening bushwacking through 6 ft high lantana thickets and then a sunset stake out to look out for flying furballs, i.e. gliders.

If you guys remember my posts about the time in Seychelles, you know that one of the aspects I cherished most was the amount of knowledge I gained by living in close proximity with the wildlife and plants. That was a large part why I chose this program, because learning in situ is so valuable.

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Placospermum coriaceum treeling. Its distinctive staghorn leaves are a reliable self-esteem booster during plant ID days.

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The Curtain Fig, one of the largest strangler figs in the Atherton Tablelands area.

Rooming in a less-than-bug-proof cabin with four other girls was actually pretty fun (it felt like Parent Trap-ish!), thanks to the grit from Gordon’s La Vida program. The most surprising things were like falling asleep to shuffling noises in the roof (most likely a white-tailed rat or a python), cicadas flying into our windows, seeing a monitor lizard walk down your cabin steps or waking up at 5am because the whip bird couples are calling to each other. The male starts this long sustained note and the female responds with a very ‘70s sci-fi sounding “CHIOO!” Other neighbors of ours in the forest included brush turkeys, more moths than I can name, terrestrial leeches (nicer than mosquitoes!), the omnipresent huntsman spiders, cockatoos, wompoo pigeon, and my archenemies– the white-kneed king crickets.

I’ll leave you with photos of some of these neighbors of mine. More photos and posts about Australia will come! 

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Bill, our campus’ facilities guy, is our go-to for the most interesting wildlife encounters. Sometimes he shows up at night with a snake bag and a snake hook for Steve Irwin-esque release action. He just happened to find a stick insect this day and it became my study buddy.

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The amethystine python, named for its scales’ iridescence. They are normally found curled up in some basket fern epiphytes, but this 5 m long one came out for some sun.

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The world’s largest insect, a female Hercules moth. It was larger than my hand!

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Boyd’s forest dragon

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Feathers from a wompoo pigeon. They’re a brilliant teal-green and have a muffled throaty call that goes “wo-om-poo”