Discovering the Flying Foxes of Australia

Australia is known for its amazing, diverse and unique wildlife. And when you think of Australian wildlife, you probably automatically picture koalas, kangaroos, wallabys, and dingoes. But one of the more incredible and underrated creatures Down Under, is the flying fox.

With a name like flying fox, you might imagine this to be a hoax played on uninformed tourists, like the terrifying, (and imaginary) drop bear. Surely, foxes can’t really fly. And you would be correct. But for some people, the flying fox is even more nightmarish than drop bears. That’s because they aren’t actually a fox at all; they’re bats. Huge, hairy bats.

We had our first encounter with flying foxes on our last night in Brisbane. We were walking past a large tree in front of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. There was a lot rustling and commotion in this tree, so we stopped to watch. Initially we assumed it was full of lorikeets or some other small tropical bird common in Australia. But when one flew out of the tree over our heads, my husband said, “that’s not a bird. That’s a bat! A really big one, too!”

Luckily, bats don’t really freak me out. Then again, I’ve really never seen one up close before, other than at the zoo or in a museum exhibit. And my husband was right; these bats were huge, with a wingspan like nothing we’d ever seen before. We walked slowly, watching them fly in and out of the tree. There must have been at least fifty of them in there. We were instantly taken with them.

From Brisbane we headed to Port Macquarie for a few days. One afternoon, we went for a walk through the historic cemetery, which is just adjacent to the Kooloonbung Creek Nature Reserve. This nature reserve is a beautiful little sanctuary in the heart of Port Macquarie, with lovely boardwalks and trails:

I mean, how pretty is this?

As we walked through the reserve, we spotted a sign indicating flying foxes in the area.

flying fox sign

At this point, we still didn’t know much about flying foxes. We didn’t even know what to look for, since we had only seen them at night. They’d be pretty easy to miss altogether if you weren’t specifically looking for them. But we did eventually find some in the trees. See all those little bundles that look like fruit hanging? Those are flying foxes! And once you see them, you can’t un-see them. We started spotting them everywhere in the trees overhead. There were thousands of them!

As dusk started to settle overhead, the flying foxes got more active. We found a little lookout over the creek where the flying foxes seemed to be heading.

Unfortunately, we didn’t think to bring a zoom lens with us, and photographing them in flight, at dusk, was darn near impossible. So we took video instead.

We watched the flying foxes diving for water for about a half hour, until it got too dark to see them well. But we had found our new evening pastime in Port Macquarie.

The next night, we went out to the same lookout to watch the flying foxes take flight. This time, however, we had done a bit of research on them.

We learned that these are actually grey-headed flying foxes, just one of four megabat species native to Australia. But the grey-headed flying fox is the largest of the four, with a wingspan that averages 1 meter. Since they don’t use echo-location, they have to find food by relying on their sight. So they have very large eyes and an amazing sense of smell in order to find fruit, pollen and nectar. They’ll often travel within a 30km radius to look for food, but may go as far as 100km!

We also learned that when they touch down onto the water, they aren’t scooping water into their mouths. They’re doing something called “belly-dipping” – they’ll touch their bellies into the water, then go into the trees and lick the water off their fur. You can see a few flying foxes belly-dip here:

Again, we stayed until it got too dark to see them well. But we were okay with that, since the next day we planned to go to Wingham Brush Nature Reserve – home to a very large colony of flying foxes.

Wingham Brush Nature Reserve is about an hours’ drive south from Port Macquarie. It’s a great spot for bird-watching and seeing some of the local flora native to the region. For example, the astounding moreton bay fig tree, like this one:

Then there’s the gympie tree, also known as the giant stinging tree. Apparently, the stings from this tree have been known to kill dogs and horses that brushed against them accidentally!

(When we returned from holidays, a co-worker had left a “fun fact” on my desk about this tree in particular. It said that the pain from the sting was so bad, that a man once committed suicide after using its leaves as toilet paper!)

But aside from birds and trees, the flying fox colony here is particularly impressive. In fact, this reserve is the only known continuously-used roosting and maternity site between the Hunter Valley and Bellingen. At their peak, there could be over 200,000 flying foxes here! I have to say, it’s a little unnverving to know all those little eyes are watching you from high up in the trees:

These little guys just fascinated us. We could have watched them for hours, even when they weren’t doing much of anything during the day. Mostly, they sleep, just “hang out” and fan themselves with their wings to keep cool.

As we walked along the boardwalk, particularly along the Flying Fox Circuit, I noticed a dead flying fox on the path. And then another, and another. There were dozens of them on the path and on the ground, and they all appeared to be fairly young. Not knowing much about them, we didn’t know if this was normal at this time of year (November) or not.

A few minutes later, we ran into an older gentleman on the path, who was an obvious frequenter to the nature reserve. We struck up a conversation, and we mentioned the dead bats on the trail. The man said that no, this wasn’t a normal event to see so many dead bats. He thought perhaps it was from noise, as loud noises can cause the flying fox mothers to drop their young. He said he had just passed a young fox that appeared injured just a short walk away. We followed him to the spot, where we found this little beastie:

You can see now where they got the name “flying fox,” with those big marble eyes and little button nose. They’re really gorgeous little animals!

Flying foxes are supposed to be highly intelligent, and the behaviour exhibited by this little one confirmed that for us. This particular flying fox had actually managed to find one spot near the ground where two large tree branches had fallen, giving him (or her) a protected, shaded spot to roost in.

We weren’t sure what had befallen the little creature, though the man we’d met said it did look a bit dehydrated. Still, the young bat was moving, squeaking, and keeping a close eye on us as we debated what we could, or should do.

(In the video above, you can hear the man talking about how flying foxes “spew” from their mouths while hanging upside down. He wasn’t kidding about not wanting to get any on you. Mark was wearing a white shirt and one of the bats above (maybe the worried parents of this one?) spewed on his back, leaving a black splotch the size of a quarter. We never did get the stain out completely.)

One thing you never do with bats, is to try and touch them or pick them up. They carry all manner of parasites and viruses, not to mention rabies. And being completely unfamiliar with how to handle an injured flying fox, we knew that we’d probably do more harm trying to extricate him from his hiding place. We did, however, have a bottle of water with us. So we gently sprinkled the water, from a safe distance, onto and around the flying fox, which seemed to calm his agitation.

The man mentioned that he had taken injured wildlife to a place called WIRES before, a local wildlife rescue center. Although I didn’t have my phone with me at the time, my husband was smart enough to have brought his GPS. So we marked the spot where we saw the flying fox, and walked back to the car. Once we got back to Port Macquarie, I contacted WIRES (short for NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc.) with the details.

So, what had happened with this bat colony? We learned that there was a food shortage up and down the coast, and the die-off was most likely due to starvation. It was especially sad because they are already listed as threatened due to habitat loss, extreme temperature events, and getting caught in fruit tree netting, among other threats. These little creatures had quickly become our favourite mammal in Australia, and we were disheartened to hear of the struggles they face. However, we were happy to have had the opportunity to learn more about these amazing little pollinators, and the vital role they play in the local ecosystem. And, hopefully, as more people learn about them and realize their importance, more work will be done to preserve their colonies.

Something that struck us on this trip was the lack of information for visitors if they encounter injured wildlife. The reserves and nature parks, while having great interpretive signs, often did not list contact information for local wildlife rescue centers. And considering how many animals in Australia are threatened or endangered, it would be a great asset to have such information readily available.

 

 

 

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2 Replies to “Discovering the Flying Foxes of Australia”

  1. Darlene Post author

    Thank you and the entire WIRES team for the awesome work you do! I only hope I can bring a little awareness for people travelling to Australia and the incredible wildlife you protect. Several species of bats here in Canada are now on the endangered list as well, so hopefully more can be done to help them, too.

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