Flying Foxes of Australia

Grey-headed Flying Fox

Grey-headed Flying Fox

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.   

 

Spectacled Flying Fox

Spectacled Flying Fox

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. 

 

Flying Foxes

Flying Foxes

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

An Awesome Aussie Swim

Even though my favorite kind of travel is wildlife adventures to remote locations, there are inevitably cities that an adventure traveler has to pass through to get out to the wilderness.  If you aren’t a rock star chartering your own plane, there is usually a train, bus, jeep, boat, or puddle-jumper plane required to get out to the wild side. The City of Cairns (pronounced “cans”) was such a place for me on three different occasions. 

Cairns Esplanade

Cairns Esplanade

This is a small city as cities go (population less than 200,000) and is in northeastern Australia in the state of Queensland.  You can access the Great Barrier Reef from here, or drive further north to Cape York Peninsula, west to the Atherton Tablelands or other remote jewels.

This palm-studded photo is one of my favorite spots in Cairns:  the Esplanade.  Tourists like to go here because there are shops and restaurants down near the marina, as well as a departure dock for snorkel and dive boats.  The main part of the Esplanade is this long park that flanks the ocean.  It has a well-maintained path (or “track” as Australians call it) for locals and tourists alike. We saw several dozen species of birds here, from parrots to pelicans.

 

Cairns Swimming Lagoon

Cairns Swimming Lagoon

At the marina end of the Esplanade is an interesting gathering place, the Swimming Lagoon.  It is a public swimming pool, and it sparkles under the searing Australian sun.  This photo of the pool is where it begins.  You enter it like a beach, just walking gradually off the pavement and into the pool, but it’s a concrete pool.  The pool is built right next to the ocean, like an infinity pool, so when you’re in it the glittery turquoise sea stretches out as far as you can see. 

 

Things are different in Australia.  They’re always different.  Here in the United States we have elaborate luxury resorts with numerous pools built right next to the ocean.  Sunbathers lay beside the pool on chaise lounges so they never have to experience sand grains on their feet or the unpredictability of a crashing wave tossing them down.  In Australia they have a pool beside the ocean for a different and more sympathetic reason:  so the box jellyfish can’t kill you. 

 

There they have beaches with giant nets in the water to keep the predators out, daunting jellyfish signs on shore, and dedicated life guards who really do save numerous lives.  The box jellyfish have seriously fatal stingers and the undertow is like nowhere else in the world.  You can read more about it in my Australian travel mystery Wicked Walkabout

 

But if you’re not inclined toward smashing waves, convulsing undertows, or jellyfish that suck the sap out of you, then you can tiptoe into this man-made lagoon and enjoy an easy and refreshing soak in crystal clear water. Cities have their joys too.

Flamingo Fandango

flamingo

Flamingoes, Rift Valley, East Africa

With over 10,000 species of birds in this world, there are many birds to write about.  I’m doing a lot of research on Africa right now, so here are photos and fun facts about the exquisite flamingo. 

It’s one of my favorite birds.  There are many aspects of the flamingo that are interesting and memorable, but their sound and group behavior are what thrill me the most. 

The flamingo can be found all across the world.  Here in the United States they are in Florida, Texas and other southern coastal areas.  They also live in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mediterranean; I’ve seen them in the Galapagos Islands, there are even some in parts of Europe.  In much bigger flocks they can be seen in India, parts of Asia…and then there’s Africa. 

 

I like seeing them in Africa because, well, I love Africa.  The alkaline lakes in which they feed produce an abundance of carotenoid pigments that give them an especially rich pink color.  This photo was taken in the Rift Valley of East Africa.  They flock here in the thousands.  I have watched flamingos for hours, and after awhile one might think they’re a bit freaky-looking with the crooked bill, legs longer than its body, and that outrageous bubble-gum color.  But they’re not freaky, they’re exotic and lovely. 

 

The bill is a work of art.  First, it is designed to filter mud and debris from its food with the help of comb-like structures and a rough tongue inside the bill.  Second, because the bird wades in shallow waters and has exceptionally long legs, the head is always upside down; so the bill operates in an inverted manner.  It is called an arcuate bill because it is bent, and it’s bent so it can scrape the bottom of the lake. 

 

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

The huge flocks are also fascinating.  Even when I knew we were on our way to see the flamingoes, I wasn’t sure that’s what I was seeing.  We were bumping down the dirt road from miles away, descending into the valley, and there in the distorted-heat-wave distance was a blanket of pink.  I thought maybe it was wildflowers.  Then as we approached, I saw the lake completely covered with flamingoes.  They were all standing wing-to-wing, so close together. 

 

Being a very skittish bird, it is difficult to know how close you can get before they’ll disperse, but the guide helps with that.  When you get out of the vehicle, quietly, quietly, you hear them.  It’s not the honking flamingo sound you hear on You Tube videos filmed in a zoo.  It’s an electric sound, a low-pitched buzzing amplified by a thousand. 

 

As you watch them longer, feeling that electric buzzing vibrating through you, you notice few are actually standing still.  Some are feeding, neck bent down, wading, feeding like methodical lawn mowing.  Some are grooming.  Others are five, six, sometimes 10 in a line, all moving in unison.  And this is the part that I find so unusual:  they move in a synchronized line like chorus dancers.  They hold their long neck erect and glide around on straight long legs, first one direction, then another; all in perfect harmony.  This chorus line moves as other flamingo chorus lines move, each line hurrying in a different direction but no one losing a step or bumping into another.  This is courtship.    

 

What a grand sight:  a lake so big you can barely see the other side, animated by flashy pink dancing flamingoes.  It truly is a flamingo fandango. 

Unrattled by a Rattler

Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake

Last Tuesday I found this rattlesnake outside my back door in the morning and outside my front door in the afternoon.  Saw the same individual at the front door again on Wednesday. 

 

Here in northern California, all winter long they stay burrowed in the earth enjoying a protected subterranean sleeping life while us mammals endure the rain and chilly temperatures.  Then in April or May, depending how warm and dry it is, they come out looking for food and a mate to get the new season underway.  This is when we see them, and they’re frisky, active, and prevalent.  This time of year can be unnerving, but if you learn how to cohabit with this magnificent serpent you’re fine.  After these two spring months pass we don’t see them again except for an occasional surprise encounter. 

 

This is a venomous viper, so it works best to learn their patterns and boundaries and be respectful.  Some people around here kill every rattlesnake they see, but to me that translates they are afraid of it.  We have lived on this property 11 years and there have always been rattlesnakes here, but we have never killed one.  Have never had an incident of getting bit ever.  It is a symbiotic relationship, which goes on a lot in nature if you allow it.  We don’t bother the rattlers, they don’t bother us, and they keep our mouse population blessedly in check. 

 

When we moved here the mice were a problem.  Then we found out the previous owner killed every rattler.  Now, the only time the mice are a problem is in the early spring when they want to build nests under the hood of our cars.  The snakes haven’t woken up yet.  We have to use mouse traps under the hood because, let’s face it, you can’t have mice eating away your filters and wires.  But once the snakes are awake the mouse traps go back in the shed until next spring. 

 

The western rattlesnake, pictured here, lives in all the western states of the U.S.; this individual is in a sub-species called Northern Pacific and resides in western CA as well as WA, OR and ID.  They like dry, warm habitats.  This one I saw was the first sighting of the season and it was hidden in grass so I couldn’t see the rattle.  I had my foot in mid-air to step onto a cinderblock, when I noticed something inside the cinderblock.   The sun reflected shininess off of a reptile head.  I thought it was a harmless lizard.  Then when it didn’t scurry away like a lizard I paused and stepped back.  Its forked tongue shot out at me, sensing me as I sensed him.  Even though the rattle was hidden, I knew it was a rattlesnake by the triangular-shaped head.  I moved back to safety, observed from a distance with my binoculars, and saw why it hadn’t moved.  It had just eaten something pretty big, couldn’t move until he did some digesting.  The center of his body was widely misshapen and stretched out several inches wider than the rest of the body.  Through the binoculars I saw light-colored fur beside him and realized he had just eaten a chipmunk.  The chipmunks like to hang out in that little corner…or at least they did. 

 

No other viper on earth has rattles.  The rattles are loosely interlocking segments at the end of the tail.  Each year when they shed their skin they grow a new rattle.  But they don’t necessarily have one rattle for every year of life because a youth sometimes adds 3 or 4 segments in a year, and older snakes don’t always add a new rattle.  This individual is probably 8 or 10 years old.  I try not to get so close that I get rattled at, because that’s the danger sign.  Once my partner and I each had huge armloads of weeds we were carrying and we didn’t see the fella; he rattled at us and we immediately stopped, stepped back, gave him his space.  He didn’t retreat so we did.  It is a very cool sound, a hollow clatter, something like a dry gourd. 

 

We’ll be careful in the next few months especially—kick a rock or fallen limb before lifting it, keep the grass short where walking.  Mostly it’s about being attentive.  Being attentive is a remarkable tool for any species, and being respectful goes a long way too.  Happy Spring!