There’s new sound in the garden just now. A plaintive relentless cheeping. But not the tiny piping tones of a naked, newly hatched chick. No, it’s the muscular alto plea of the ginormous eastern koel chick to its diminutive red wattle bird parent.
And the wattlebirds are desperate. I eyeballed the juvenile koel, lounging comfortably high in the canopy. Meanwhile its parent wheeled and fluttered in frenzied manner, perching here and pecking there, apparently driven to madness by the insatiable appetite of its parasitic offspring.
No sooner was the mega-chick fed than it returned to its incessant harping, as if unloved and cruelly abandoned.
As I crashed around trying to get a clear shot of the elusive ear-splitting koel, I saw, at the top of the very same tree, something I’d never seen here before, something genuinely sad and alone.
Flying foxes are very mobile, travelling up to 120 kilometres a night to feed. We often hear them around our place on summer evenings, squealing and hurling fruit around. During the year they migrate long distances following the peripatetic flowering seasons of eucalypts, melaleucas and rainforest trees, pollinating as they go. Just like giant warm blooded bees, they carry pollen on their fur from one fragment of forest to another. Flying foxes have been tracked moving as far as two thousand kilometres over the course of nine months and bat encampments have been described as more like railway stations or youth hostels than places of permanent residence.
But mega bats are sociable creatures and finding one on its own in the daytime like this is not a good sign. I realised later I should have called the local WIRES group so someone with more expertise and a better head for heights than me could shin up its extremely tall tree to check it wasn’t injured by any of the usual suspects – barbed wire, open weave fruit netting or a dog bite. But by the time I worked that out, it was the next morning, and the bat was gone – back to its digs in the local “Batpackers”, I hope.
I know some people feel about flying foxes the way I do about brush turkeys. If you’re a fruit grower in NSW it is still possible to get a licence to shoot them to protect your orchards, although the mega bats actually prefer pollen and nectar as a food source – and tightly secured, finely woven netting (one you can’t poke a finger through) protects crops better than a shotgun anyway. In my backyard, the bats would be at the back of a very long queue for the ripe fruit anyway. Ahead of me, of course, but behind the cockies and the possums for sure.
Deforestation means that there’s more conflict between flying foxes and humans these days, as the bats move into the leafy suburbs where the fruiting and flowering plants are diverse and well watered. They’re chatty critters with some “interesting” habits – urinating on themselves and then fanning their wings to cool down for one – which some people living nearby can find a hard to take (not to mention a couple of rare but deadly bat-borne diseases).
But the visibility of flying foxes in east coast Australian cities conceals the fact that (unlike brush turkeys) their numbers are in major decline. One article suggests that at current rates, the grey headed flying fox, the type I found in my backyard, will be extinct by 2070.
The mega bats are particularly susceptible to high temperatures. They start to “melt from the inside” in the words of a scientist, at just about the same temperature that is unsupportable for stingless bees, 43 degrees C. A couple of years ago in Queensland, 45,000 megabats, mostly the tropical black flying fox, died in one day during a heat wave. But high temperatures may just be the final straw when bats are short of food anyway.
Over the last couple of weeks, there have been scores of baby grey-headed bats found dead in parks along the east coast. Both habitat loss and the aftermath of an El Nino, according to researcher Peggy Eby, have led to a food shortage.
“The mothers are going through a difficult nutritional phase, and they’re reducing the amount of milk they’re producing and the young starve. They hang on to the females for the first several weeks of life, when she flies from the roost at night, and they simply would lose the strength that they need to hold on.”
I’m not sure why this stray found its way to our yard. I hope it wasn’t injured here. We don’t have a dog or barbed wire and we use veggie nets to keeps the bowerbirds and the brush turkeys off the fig trees (or if we’re feeling cheap, old trampoline netting from the side of the road). But we still haven’t raised the cash to chop down the nasty cocos palm that is so appealing and yet so dangerous to flying foxes.
I hope the neighbours’ pool gave was a spot for a cooling bellydip and the jungle at the bottom of the yard gave it somewhere to recoup, recalibrate its GPS and get ready to head back to its pals at base camp. Lovely as it was to have the chance to take his photo, I hope we hear him but don’t see him again.