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Grey-Headed Flying Foxes

Updated: Mar 2, 2019

As you enter the 1500-foot bat trail, the first thing you notice is the smell. It wasn’t bad really, just like a slightly sour wet-dog. Then out of nowhere flying low overhead comes a furry little chihuahua-like creature with thin smooth vinyl-covered bony outstretched wings. As it flew by, its furry body, gray head, red fur neck-cowl and dark gray body is seen.



A short walk further reveals hundreds if not thousands of dark pods hanging upside down by toenails from trees. Just like Dracula’s cape, their wings are folded tightly across their bodies. They occasionally unwrap themselves, yawn, stretch, and re-wrap. This is something to see. Even my grandchildren who usually scamper off to investigate a park, are moving slower to observe them, and say, “This is so cool”.



This colony of Grey-headed Flying Foxes, the largest of four Australian fruit bats, has had as many as 30,000 individuals and can be seen at Yarra Bend Park in Kew, a suburb of Melbourne. They may seem plentiful, but their numbers are decreasing because of global warming, deforestation, loss of habitat, and getting trapped in nets that people put on their fruit trees. On one day this past January, the temperature reached 111 degrees, and the bats just can’t take it. They literally boil and die. Also, as land is cleared and the trees and plants they depend on are converted to other uses, their numbers decrease as they lose their habitat and food.


Bats along the trail in the eucalyptus trees


Fruit bats are important pollinators. Without fruit bats, many of Australia’s plants and animals would become threatened. Thankfully, a group of volunteers is dedicated to saving them, and rescue baby bats from dead mothers and nurse them to adulthood. Because bats are mammals they need to suckle their mothers breast milk, but with no mother, the rescued baby bats are given pacifiers to suck on, as well as fluids, glucose and eventually fruit to eat. They are hung upside down on branches and stimulated to fly by hanging fruit nearby. Eventually they are ready to be released back into the colony from their “bat school”. “We save and release about 200 babies a year”, a volunteer told me, “but might lose a thousand mothers.




A young flying fox hangs above two adults

 

In the half hour following sunset the bats build to incredible numbers. The sky is thick with them and there is a constant stream overhead. You can follow them as the road continues along the Yarra, and see them fly like a swarm over the suburbs as they move out to find flowers and fruit. If you've ever wanted to feel like you're in a David Attenborough documentary, this is the place to do it.


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Susan Rouillier
Bird Photographer and Painter

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