The flying fox bats of Australia are some of the most incredible mammals we have on this planet. Although they congregate in large groups, called camps, they are not easily seen everywhere on the continent because their distribution is limited. But when you do find them, they are a wildly chaotic phenomenon, and fascinating.
There are two kinds of bats in this world: megabats and microbats. The flying foxes are megabats, and some are indeed mega. The grey-headed, seen here, have a wingspan of up to three feet, and a body around 8 to 10 inches long. There are four species of the flying fox, some are endangered, some are listed as vulnerable.
As a bird watcher, I have no problem with watching flying creatures for hours at a time. The first time I visited Australia in 1999, we came across trees and trees full of the grey-headed flying foxes in the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden. Since then I have spent many hours on several different trips Down Under, bedazzled by this interesting creature.
Each night around dusk they fly out to feed. With a diet of native fruit, nectar and pollen, they transport pollen on their fur and disperse seeds, helping to provide a perpetual regeneration of native trees to Australia. Unlike the microbats we have in the United States, the mega bats use their eyes to see. We always hear that bats use echolocation, the process of locating bouncing sound waves, to find their way around. Generally that is true for microbats, but not megabats like the flying foxes. You can see from the photos how wide open their eyes are.
During the day, they roost in tree tops. When they roost it is not a sleepy, quiet event. Some bats are tucked inside their stretchy wings, hanging upside down, sleeping soundly. But many are socializing, flying about, inching up a tree limb, or jockeying for a better position. Between the harsh squealing sound they make, all the moving and flying around, and the large volume of their colony, they are hard to miss. They also give off a distinct fetid smell.
Unfortunately the flying fox population has dwindled in the past, primarily due to loss of habitat. Also, they can do a fair amount of damage to fruit orchards and ornamental trees, and are thought of as a nuisance by some humans. But fortunately they have teams of scientists studying and protecting them, and the flying foxes continue their existence.
As it always goes with wildlife, my favorite sighting of the grey-headed flying fox was completely unexpected. One night as the sun was setting I was swimming with my partner in the rooftop pool of our hotel. We had been all over the city of Sydney that day, doing touristy things like posing in front of the Opera House, walking in the cobbled streets near the harbour, and buying kangaroo souvenirs. That night I was floating on my back, enjoying the orange and pink sunset blooming overhead, decompressing after a long day on the pavements of a busy city.
I had my eyes open, staring up, when dozens and dozens, then hundreds of what looked like soaring black hawks crossed the amber sky. All headed in one direction, they were about 150 feet above us, moving like a big black wave. It was a spectacle, this mass of flying foxes crossing the city sky on their way to the forests to feed for the night.
Some people dislike or are afraid of bats, especially big bats that fly in big groups. But some people are afraid of a lot of things. If you saw what we saw that night, this beautiful force of nature, you too, would have marveled.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander